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Kentucky Derby winner, the 'swarm' has predicted you

CNET's Terry Collins joins Unanimous A.I.'s blend of human smarts and artificial intelligence to help select this year's winner.

Will Irish War Cry win the fastest two minutes in sports? Or maybe McCracken, or Classic Empire?

What if Always Dreaming pulls away from the field? (Hint: it finished strong.)

Those were the daunting prospects that 16 others (including 12 horse racing experts) and I faced Wednesday participating in an artificial intelligence "swarm" with Unanimous A.I. to pick the winner of this year's Kentucky Derby. Our task: tapping UNU, a blend of human smarts and artificial intelligence using algorithms to pick the "superfecta" -- the top four racehorses to finish the race Saturday at Churchill Downs in Louisville.

We chose a winner, but spent the next four days having little faith in it due to a competitive field and the wet conditions. (Hint: it started in the back and finished strong, too)

There's some precedent. Our colleagues at TechRepublic challenged Unanimous to predict last year's race. A group of 20 correctly chose the top four Derby finishers in order (Nyquist, Exaggerator, Gunrunner and Mohaymen) -- defying 540-to-1 odds. The prediction made UNU creator Louis Rosenberg more than $10,000 off a $20 bet.

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A Unanimous AI UNU swarm struggles to predict Kentucky Derby favorite Classic Empire will win this year's race.

UNU

It also brought national attention to Unanimous. It created swarms predicting other major sporting events including the Chicago Cubs finally winning the World Series, the Super Bowl and the hotly contested political races -- sometimes with mixed results. Unanimous, however, did predict that the Pittsburgh Penguins would win the 2016 Stanley Cup (I participated in that swarm), and that Donald Trump would be Time Magazine's 2016 Man of the Year. Still, it's that inexact science that's made Unanimous' UNU so popular.

This year's Kentucky Derby "swarm" comes about a year after Unanimous' online platform became open for public use. The company's AI algorithm is inspired by Cornell University neurobiology professor Thomas Seeley's theory on how swarms (birds and bees, for example) reach collective decisions to survive.

Here's how it works: Participants are simultaneously asked a question with a set of possible answers. Each controls a magnet they can maneuver across the screen to drag a sphere to their choice for the right answer.

The group has only a minute to reach a decision and there must be consensus. Otherwise, a "Brain Freeze" sign embarrassingly pops up.

"It's amplifying the intelligence of the group," Rosenberg told me Wednesday. And instead approaching a group of fans like myself, Churchill Downs went to Unanimous to ask if it could assemble some of horse racing's best handicappers, including Michael Beychok and award-winning writer Bill Finley, to swarm. These "super-experts" look at everything from the horse's breed to its speed and their jockeys riding them.

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Kentucky Derby early favorite Classic Empire prepping for the big race.

Eclipse Sportswire, Getty Images

Introductions were short. These guys came to pick the ponies, especially since there isn't a clear-cut favorite. Initially, McCracken and Classic Empire were each given an 85 percent chance of finishing in the top four, followed by Irish War Cry and Always Dreaming with 75 percent and 65 percent, respectively.

We had to choose a winner. As our magnets struggled for supremacy -- I kept tapping my computer mouse trying to gain some measure of control -- a moderator repeatedly reminded our swarm we had to work cohesively.

After much tugging, swearing and mouse-dragging (my fingers were turning red), the swarm settled the sphere on the early favorite, Classic Empire. However, it is with "low confidence." McCracken, Irish War Cry and Always Dreaming will round out the superfecta.

"I can live with that as a selection. We will see if our confidence will be rewarded," said Ed DeRosa, a swarm member and the top handicapper for Twinspires.com, the derby's official wagering site.

The swarm's picks was used for a $10,000 Players' Pool that was already sold out by Wednesday, a day before the swarm's selections were released publicly, he added.

DeRosa, ever the gambler, also tweeted out his personal rankings:

But Rosenberg cautioned expectations with the swarm hitting the superfecta two years in a row.

"It's going to be a wild derby," he said. "Let's see how this all plays out."

Well, Always Dreaming, whose owner said she named the horse such because she's always daydreaming, easily won the Derby, beating 9-to-2 odds. Lookin' at Lee came in second, followed by Battle of Midway in third.

Oh, Classic Example, the Swarm's pick to win, finished fourth. So no superfecta for the "swarm," this year.

After Saturday's race, DeRosa, praised Always Dreaming. But he couldn't help but tweet if the colt would fare well in the next leg of the Triple Crown series:

First published May 4, 5:00 a.m. PT.
Update, May 6 at 4:30 p.m.: With results from the race and comments.

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