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Following the Digital Crumbs: The New Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center

by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center
Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies
Troy, NY

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


Good morning. On behalf of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, it is my great pleasure to welcome you to the grand opening of the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center (SCNARC), funded by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory. 

This interdisciplinary center is part of the newly created Collaborative Technology Alliance (or CTA for short). The CTA — which is funded by the Army Research Laboratory — includes four nationwide centers focused on different aspects of the emerging field of network science, each comprising a consortium of prestigious academic and commercial institutions.

Of these four new CTA centers, Rensselaer is honored to be the hub for the center devoted solely to the study of social cognitive networks. This center is made possible with a generous 10-year, $36 million grant from the Army Research Laboratory, which is shared among our prestigious academic and corporate partners — IBM Corporation, Northeastern University, and the City University of New York — and with collaborators from Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New York University, Northwestern University, the University of Notre Dame, the University of Maryland, and Indiana University.

I thank the Army Research Laboratory for selecting Rensselaer as the lead university for this new center. We look forward to working alongside the outstanding researchers from our partner and collaborating institutions. Such teamwork enables cross-pollination of ideas, beyond the confines of one organization. Indeed, that is the beauty of this new research venture — that it is not just multi-disciplinary, but multi-institutional.

I also would like to commend the Army Research Laboratory for having the vision and foresight to create a center devoted to this novel and groundbreaking field. Not many institutions currently are studying the nascent field of social and cognitive networks, making it an even greater privilege to be among those who will help to shape it as a leading-edge discipline. Indeed, this center dovetails perfectly with our forward-thinking approach here at Rensselaer, and with our focus on deep scientific discovery and innovation.

Rensselaer brings to the center a unique research environment, including two powerful new research platforms. The team will have access to one of the most powerful academic supercomputers in the world — in the Rensselaer Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations — and access to the visualization and simulation capabilities enabled by our new Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center.

The new center will be based on the third floor of our Materials Research Center, in newly renovated (2,500-square-foot) space, and will have satellite homes at Notre Dame, Indiana University and Northeastern University. As you know, it will be headed by Professor Bolek Szymanski, the Rensselaer Claire & Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor of Computer Science. You will hear from Professor Szymanski in a few minutes.

Before I continue, there are several people here today whom I would like to acknowledge. They are:

  • U.S. Congressman Paul Tonko
  • Brigadier General Harold J. Greene, Deputy Commanding General, U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command and Senior Commander, Soldier Systems Center, Natick, Massachusetts. I am proud to add that General Greene is a Rensselaer alumnus, Class of 1980.
  • Dr. Jeffrey Hansberger, the Army Research Laboratory Liaison for the SCNARC, along with other honored guests from the ARL
  • New York State Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch
  • New York State Senator Roy McDonald
  • Rensselaer County Executive Kathy Jimino
  • The Mayor of Troy, Harry Tutunjian
  • And Commissioner of General Services, John Egan

I also would like to note that, while Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was unable to join us; she has sent her regrets.

I would like to speak this morning about the goals of this new center, and what it will mean for science. What new knowledge can we expect to generate? And, to paraphrase the Rensselaer motto: How will that knowledge help to change the world? — a world, as we know, in which Twitter and Facebook and smart phones are altering, fundamentally, the way we interact.

To give you a sense of how large these social networks are, consider that Facebook has more than 400 million active users, half of whom log on in any given day. LinkedIn reports more than 65 million members, and Twitter says that, in the past three years, the number of tweets posted daily has skyrocketed from 5,000 to 50 million — an average of 600 tweets per second. Nearly two in three people use mobile phones to send instant messages, and nearly half use them to connect to social networking sites, or to advocate for a cause.

As we become more connected, many of us become accustomed to disclosing ever more personal information. Just two weeks ago The New York Times reported on the growing popularity of sites such as Blippy and Foursquare, where people can post their purchases or their exact whereabouts. And it is becoming easier to share social network data, as new technologies enable us to instantaneously swap information – not just in person, but also via cell phone applications or wireless tokens, in what is essentially a digital exchange of business cards.

Our social networking leaves behind long trails of “digital crumbs” for us to follow and study, and, we hope, eventually, to enable us to reach the goal of SCNARC, which is to predict human interactions over networks in a verifiable way. The center will study fundamental network structures, and how they are altered by technology. As such, it will strive to measure and model more accurately the interactions that people engage in over these networks and, in the process, to uncover and foresee complex social patterns, and to understand how technology enhances or changes them. In particular, the Center will study five areas:

  1. The dynamic processes in networks.
  2. The flow of knowledge through networks.
  3. The workings of adversary networks.
  4. The level of trust in social networks. And,
  5. The impact of human error in social networks.

This is not traditional research. This is leading edge, and the impact will be far-reaching. I say that because, historically, computer science always has transformed other disciplines. Marry computer science to physics, and we generate new models of cosmology. Marry it to biology and the result is DNA mapping. Now, the marriage of computer science to the fields of psychology and sociology offers the potential to predict the nature of interactions between people. The science of social and cognitive networks will enable empirical validation of behavioral models. No longer will we have to rely solely on memory.

The journal, Science, in an article entitled “Life in the Network: The Coming of Age of Computational Social Science,” highlights what can be gained by this research — for example, a better understanding of:

  • the interactions underlying the development of language
  • the patterns associated with highly productive groups,
  • and, the effect of societal-level communication on the spread of rumors, or on the spread of biological pathogens such as influenza.

For the military, our research can have profound implications, especially in non-traditional warfare, where trust is paramount. For instance, how do we determine friend or foe, and earn the trust of native populations? How are constituencies developed? How do terrorist groups evolve? How can we improve group dynamics so that dissenting views are heard?

Of course, this is a double-edged sword because such research raises significant privacy issues. Just last week, our own U.S. Senator Charles Schumer wrote a letter to the Federal Trade Commission in which he referenced the recent loosening of privacy policies by Facebook, and asked the FTC to provide guidelines that prohibit access to private information without user permission. As the Science authors noted, we need “…models of collaboration and data sharing…. that safeguard the privacy of consumers….”

I am delighted to point out, by the way, that several authors of that Science article are part of our new center, and of the broader Army Research Laboratory CTA. And we especially are privileged, in that two of the authors are giving presentations at our Scientific Sessions today.

In fact, our event today underscores how the center enables more closely integrated collaborations, which, prior to this, existed only informally. Our investigations will involve the unprecedented collaboration of teams of world-class scientists in a variety of fields including social science, neuroscience, cognitive science, physics, computer science, political science, mathematics, game theory, and engineering. As I frequently emphasize: the spark of discovery and innovation often comes when we bring diverse disciplines together, and when we collaborate at the intersection of these disciplines.

The bottom line is that social interactions are profoundly impacted by technology. Technology transforms what people want, and what people want transforms technology in the ever-changing, digitally linked, global social climate of today. Together with our partners and collaborators, and with the other CTA centers, we, literally, are creating the new discipline of network science. Rensselaer is fortunate to be in a position to define this new discipline, in all its complexity — and we are honored to be a leader in this bold and exhilarating transformation.


Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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