Who Said You Can’t Predict the Future?

27-year-old Technion grad makes MIT list of world’s top young innovators for her algorithms that forecast world events.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Kira Radinsky was named to MIT's list of 35 most important young innovators.
Kira Radinsky was named to MIT's list of 35 most important young innovators.Credit: Daniel Bar-On
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Kira Radinsky was 4 years old when she first stepped foot in Israel, arriving on a plane from Kiev with her mother and aunt just three weeks before the outbreak of the first Gulf War.

“My first memories of life in Israel are putting on a gas mask and sticking rags under the door to make sure no poisonous gas seeped through,” she recalls.

Twenty-three years down the road, gas masks may once again be the talk of the town, but Radinsky is on to bigger and better things.

Earlier this month, the 27-year-old Technion graduate was notified that she had made this year’s MIT Technology Review list of “35 Innovators Under 35.” It’s an illustrious list that has included in past years the likes of Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the co-founders of Google; Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder of Facebook; Jonathan Ive, the chief designer at Apple; and David Karp, the founder of Tumblr.

Previous Technion honorees have been Professor Kinneret Keren and Professor Hossam Haick, both member of its Nanotechnology Institute, and Yaakov Benenson, a graduate of its Excellence Program. Another Israeli to make the list was Anat Levin of the Weizmann Institute of Science.

It was Radinsky’s development of algorithms capable of predicting global events by using vast repositories of web-based data sources that caught the attention of the judges this year. “The predictions made by Radinsky’s software are about as accurate as those made by humans,” the technology review board wrote on its website. “That digital prognostication ability would be extremely useful in automating many kinds of services.”

Radinsky’s algorithms, it noted, were able to predict Cuba’s first outbreak of cholera in 130 years several months before it happened last year.

Today, the young scientist is taking her passion for prediction in another direction: sales. As chief technology officer for SalesPredict, a startup in Netanya she founded a year ago, Radinsky is determined to prove that good salesmanship is not only an art but a science. “Using data our customers provide us with about their own customer bases, as well as data available from other places, we can predict who will be their best customers and show them how to engage these customers in a better way in order to maximize sales,” she explains. “Using our services, they can basically eliminate lots of wasted phone calls and time.”

Radinsky grew up in Nesher, a working-class town near Haifa with a relatively large constituency of residents from the former Soviet Union. She first developed an interest in science, she recalls, in fourth grade, when she was put into a special class for outstanding students and heard a lecture about bioinformatics. “That was just when Dolly was cloned, and I was really interested in that kind of stuff,” she recounts.

A year later, at the age of 10, she had already decided to do a class project on genetic cloning and its effects on the future.

Her mother, who juggled several different jobs as a math teacher and was rarely at home, was determined that her unusually inquisitive child be properly occupied after school. “Like many kids in the neighborhood, I did special classes in physics, chemistry and literature at a special Russian after-school,” recounts Radinsky. “It was very old school in its approach but actually lots of fun. I also took karate classes, piano lessons, tennis and dance.”

While in high school, she was accepted into a special program that allowed her to begin taking higher-level math classes at the Technion at age 15. After completing her military service in a top intelligence unit, she was accepted to the prestigious Excellence Program at the Technion — where in addition to having her tuition and housing fully covered, she also received a monthly stipend. She was mentored there by Professor Shaul Markovitch of the faculty of computer science.

Just to make sure she was properly challenged, she decided to begin life on the academic track from the end. “I started with the more advanced courses and worked my way back to the basics,” she says. “I was more inspired that way.”

Radinsky began her master’s while working on her bachelor’s, and before starting her doctorate took off time from academia to work at the Microsoft Research Division in Redmond, Washington, under its co-director Eric Horvitz.

She probably could have stayed on had she wished, but Radinsky decided instead to come back to Israel and complete her doctorate. “I really like the ‘states. It’s very easy to get the stuff done there really fast, and everything is so easy,” she reflects, “but there’s something about being an Israeli that you eventually want to come back.”

She recently married her childhood sweetheart, another immigrant from the former Soviet Union who grew up in the same neighborhood with her in Nesher. “We even used to take karate together,” she notes. Today, he runs his own startup, working mainly out of their home in Zichron Yaakov, but they make a point of having lunch together every day.

Her schedule. “Basically, 24/7,” she says. “I get to the office at about nine and get home about 10-10:30, when I go out for my daily run.”

Although she’s occupied full-time trying to turn her eight-person company into a profitable enterprise, Radinsky is already thinking about her next big project. And this time she’s thinking really big time: using predictive analytics to make the world a better place. “The idea is to bring prediction into everyday life so that it can bring substantial change into the world,” she explains. “If we can use it to predict cholera, for example, we can also help people in that way to prepare for a cholera outbreak. If we can use it to predict genocide, we can also combat genocide. Something I have a particular interest in now is using it to identify people who want to commit suicide before they act on these tendencies.”

Making it onto the prestigious list of top young innovators in the world does not excite her in and of itself, she says. “What excites me is the exposure that will hopefully encourage more people to get into this type of research.”

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