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Microsoft's Bing eyes the 2016 presidential election after predicting NCAA brackets

Mark Hachman | March 18, 2015
Microsoft's Bing team explains what to expect as March Madness rolls on: an updated NCAA bracket UI and keys to the game. And it's gearing up for the 2016 presidential election, too.

Microsoft has already told you who will win the men's NCAA basketball tournament. Now, the question is: why?

The Microsoft Bing executives riding herd on Microsoft's mathematical model of March Madness, Bracket Builder, crunched several quintillion combinations Sunday night, tracking the 68 teams and the various scenarios as they progressed through the tournament. It's a new level of complexity for Microsoft, and good training for one of its next projects--predicting the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. 

Microsoft's bracket predictions aren't over, either. Microsoft executives said they plan to expose what might be called the "keys to the game:" what a team must do to win, based on Microsoft's mathematical model, so you may talk knowledgeably about which teams will win, and how they will do so.

What's interesting, however, is Microsoft's awareness of what March Madness represents: an emotional run for fans of the teams, complete with upsets, buzzer-beating shots, controversial calls, and gut feelings of which team will win, contrasted with the sheer mathematical logic of it all. 

Bryan Saftler, the senior marketing manager in charge of the Bing Bracket Builder, says that Microsoft's goal "is not to replace your answer" on which team will win. 

"At the end of the day, our job is to remove a little bit of the emotion from the bracket-building experience, and operate more from a place of logic, so you're going to end up with a smarter, winning bracket," Saftler said.

Bing's smarts, behind the scenes
Bracket Builder operates like a normal NCAA bracket: It shows which teams are scheduled to play and allows you to pick a winner. You can hover your mouse over a particular team and see some key stats that Microsoft thinks are relevant. Click "autofill," though, and the magic happens: Microsoft picks the remaining games, using your picks as absolutes. Are you utterly convinced that Duke and Kentucky will be upset early? Then Arizona wins, according to Microsoft.

Saftler said that, behind the scenes, Bing also knows why a team will win a particular matchup--or, conversely, what an underdog needs to do to pull out an upset. "So for Hampton to beat Manhattan, they have to have blocks--more than five--or turnovers, less than ten," he said. "They have to hold Manhattan to under 25 percent from the three-point line. They have to have more than ten defensive rebounds. And they have to hold their opponent to under 20 points in the paint. Being able to say, with that fidelity, what are the scenarios that need to happen for a predicted upset."

Microsoft plans to expose that reasoning via social media posts prior to every game, Saftler said. Originally, those justifications were designed to be part of the Bracket Builder UI. It's probable that as the tournament progresses--and as games wind down into the Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight, where there's more time between games--Microsoft will release a new version of the Bracket Builder user interface, where bracket players will be able to dig down through some of these keys to the game, Saftler said.


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