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Trending Science: Who’s going to win the 2018 FIFA World Cup? Move over bookies, AI has the answer

Which powerhouse will hoist the coveted gold trophy in July? That depends on which artificial intelligence (AI) model you ask.


The frenzy of the world’s most popular sporting event is well underway in Russia. It’s already been a week since people around the globe have been glued to their TVs or putting in a lot of screen time on their mobile devices. Which elite football nation will it be this time? 2014 winner Germany? Perennial favourites Brazil or Spain? It’s 2018, and you may want to seek advice from someone other than a conventional bookmaker. How about soulless automation? The science of prediction An AI engine simulated this year’s tournament 100 000 times to predict the winner. It was built by an international team of researchers from the Ghent University in Belgium, the German Technische Universitat of Dortmund and the Technical University in Munich. Some German bias you say? Don’t cry foul so fast. To predict the outcome, the AI used three machine learning methods on several factors. These include FIFA rankings, each country’s population and gross domestic product, bookmakers’ odds, how many of the national team players play together in a club and players’ average ages. According to their study, “Spain is the favoured team with a predicted winning probability of 17.8 % followed by Germany, Brazil, France and Belgium. Overall, this result seems in line with the probabilities from the bookmakers.” If you’re rooting for Spain, you may want to contain some of your excitement for the time being. The paper backs Germany to be the winner if the tournament follows the most likely course of knockout stage fixtures. “The fact that overall Spain is slightly favoured over Germany is mainly due to the fact that Germany has a comparatively high chance to drop out in the round-of-sixteen. Conditional on reaching the quarter finals, Germany overtakes Spain and is (from this tournament stage on) the favoured team.” Beyond Spain and Germany (17.1 %), Brazil (12.3 %), France (11.2 %) and Belgium (10.4 %) are favoured. Saudi Arabia came in last. If you’re not a fan of either Spain or Germany, then financial firm Goldman Sachs has some good news for you. Its own machine learning engines ran over a million simulations to predict Brazil will stand atop the podium after defeating Germany. To get there, Brazil will overcome France while Germany will defeat Portugal. Spain is expected to underperform, losing in the quarterfinals. The firm fed an AI data on team strategy, the strengths and weaknesses of individual players, and recent team results. Football has a way of upsetting both bookmakers and AI bots. Can a machine learning algorithm appreciate the passion with which an underdog plays to win it all, or a corner kick that ends up in the net after a spectacular header? Stay tuned!


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