January 30, 2014
If the Big Data revolution presiding visionary, it is MIT’s Alex “Sandy” Pentland. Over years of groundbreaking experiments, he has distilled remarkable discoveries significant enough to become the bedrock of a whole new scientific field: social physics.
Humans have more in common with bees than we like to admit: We’re social creatures first and foremost. Our most important habits of action are wired into us through our coordination in social groups. Social physics is about idea flow, the way human social network spread ideas and transform those ideas into behaviors.
Thanks to the millions of digital bread crumbs people leave behind via smartphones, GPS devices, and the Internet, the amount of new information we have about human activity is truly profound. Until now, sociologists have depended on limited data sets that tell us how people say they think and behave, rather than what they actually do. As a result, we’ve been stuck with the same steel social structures – classes, markets – and a focus on individual actors, data snapshots, and steady states. But Pentland shows that humans respond much more powerfully to social incentives that involve rewarding others and strengthening the ties that bind than incentives that involve only their own economic self-interest.
Pentland and his teams have found that they can study patterns of information exchange in a social network without any knowledge of the actual content of the information and predict with stunning accuracy how effective that network is, whether it’s a business or an entire city. We can maximize a groups collective intelligence and use social incentives to create new organizations and guide them through disruptive change. At every level of interaction, social networks can be tuned to increase exploration and engagement, thus vastly improving idea flow.
Social Physics will change the way we think about how we learn and how are social groups work – and can be made to work better, at every level of society. Pentland leads readers to the edge of the most important revolution in the study of social behavior in a generation, an entirely new way to look at life itself.
Alex “Sandy” Pentland directs MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory and the MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program, co-leads the World Economic Forum Big Data and Personal Data initiatives, and is a founding member of the advisory boards for Nissan, Motorola Mobility, and a variety of start-up firms he helped create and direct MIT’s Media Laboratory, the Media Lab Asia laboratories at the Indian Institutes of Technology, and Strong Hospital’s Centre for Future Health. His research group and entrepreneurship program have spun off more than thirty companies to date. In 2012 Forbes named Pentland one of the seven most powerful data scientists in the world.