Since 2001, the Human Dynamics Laboratory at the MIT Media Lab has used digital technologies ? from home-brewed portable sensors to cellphone call records ? to try to get a quantitative handle on the nature and the consequences of different types of human social interactions. The group?s focus has ranged from the very small, such as speed-dating sessions, to the very large, such as entire cities.
In a new book, ?Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread ? The Lessons from a New Science,? Alex ?Sandy? Pentland, the Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences and the director of the Human Dynamics Laboratory, draws all that research together into a new theory of human social interaction, which he then applies to questions of organizational management, urban planning, and digital privacy.
Pentland?s title appropriates the term that Auguste Comte, generally regarded as the father of sociology, initially applied to his own discipline. According to Pentland, the proliferation of mobile-sensor data in the Internet age, the advent of new mathematical tools for analyzing network interdependencies, and the power of modern computers mean that the aspiration to quantitative rigor in the term ?social physics? is less far-fetched that it once was.
?We have enough data to take all of these theories about people and innovation and good decision-making and make them quantitative,? Pentland says. ?And when you do that, you find that there are some reasonably simple principles that account for 80, 90 percent of the variance in some cases.?
As Pentland argues in the book, those principles have to do with the interplay of two distinct types of information propagation, which he calls ?exploring? and ?engagement.? Exploring represents exposure to novel ideas; engagement is the type of face-to-face social interaction in which nonverbal communication ? the subject of Pentland?s first book, ?Honest Signals? ? still plays a crucial role.
According to ?Social Physics,? however good an idea may look on paper ? or on a computer screen ? engagement is still the mechanism whereby it takes root in a community. ?Adopting habits is a very conservative process that seems to be driven very largely by social learning, by seeing other people doing the same thing,? Pentland says. ?Habits are things that sort of fire off automatically. You don?t want to get bad habits in your repertoire, because they?re real hard to get rid of. But when you?re exploring new ideas, you want to take everything you possibly can, because there?s really no cost to that.?
The importance of balancing exploration and engagement, Pentland says, is something that emerges again and again in his group?s research. One telling example, described in ?Social Physics,? involves the stock-trading site eToro. Members of this site can choose to reveal their stock trades to each other, and any member may adopt ? or in eToro parlance, ?copy? ? the trades of any other. Members receive financial rewards every time their trades are copied, creating an incentive for disclosure, but no one can tell whose trade anyone else is copying.
But eToro granted Pentland?s group access to the entire network of trades for 10 million transactions executed by 1.6 million eToro members. Some eToro members were loners: They almost never copied anyone else?s trades. Others ? unbeknownst to themselves ? were trapped in what Pentland calls echo chambers: They were densely connected to each other but rarely copied any outsiders? trades. The MIT researchers found that eToro members whose networks allowed them to cull from a wide range of strategies earned a 30 percent better return on their investments than either the loners or the members trapped in echo chambers.
A similar dynamic, Pentland says, governed a bank, a military installation, an IT consultancy, and several other organizations that his group studied; in each case, creating opportunities for employees to interact face to face ? by, say, synchronizing their break times ? increased productivity. Remarkably, the same principle seems to apply to entire cities, where GDP turns out to be highly correlated with opportunities for face-to-face encounters.
One of the things Pentland?s lab is investigating is how to harness these effects. He and his students have, for instance, compared schemes for promoting changes in exercise or diet among groups of volunteers. In one scheme, volunteers receive a small financial reward if they meet particular goals; in another, they receive the same reward only if their peers meet the same goals. The difference between the success of the two schemes is not subtle, Pentland reports: The addition of peer pressure makes the program anywhere from twice to 16 times as successful.
Indeed, it was an elaboration of the same peer-based incentive scheme that enabled Pentland?s group to win a contest that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency sponsored in celebration of the Internet?s 40th anniversary, in which competitors used social media to identify the locations of 10 weather balloons placed randomly around the country.
?We?re not where economics is yet,? Pentland says. ?That will take another 100 years. But we?re moving in some very promising directions.?
Social media at MIT: Behind the scenes at the Media Lab
MIT pulses with social media. A quick visit to MIT Connect reveals the breadth of social media channels here.
That doesn?t mean that social media is second nature to everyone. Even those who use it every day have to keep up with changing features and new paradigms. Nor does one size fit all. Social media strategies and resources vary widely among schools, labs, and departments at MIT.
Given social media?s ubiquity and variety, some perspective might help. This article inaugurates a series on how social media is used at the Institute. First up, the Media Lab, where Janine Liberty, a member of the Media Lab?s Communications Group, offers insights about the Media Lab?s audience and preferred social media channels, as well as goals and directions for the future.
Liberty starts with the premise that ?social media needs to align with your goals.? Since the Media Lab is a research lab with an associated graduate program, ?social? means something different than it would for a commercial company trying to sell products.
The Media Lab encompasses more than 25 different research groups, and the content they generate is vast and various. One of the Media Lab?s key objectives is to represent each group and its members as much and as well as it can. The goal is to give each of them a voice as part of the Media Lab narrative and also as part of the larger MIT identity.
The Media Lab?s audience is also large and diverse. The targeted group includes current Media Lab students; alumni and their spinoff companies; current sponsors and donors; and potential students and donors. The Media Lab?s communicators want to reach individuals who might end up at the Media Lab some day or otherwise connect with it in a meaningful way.
Another huge part of the Media Lab?s audience is college students from all over the world: undergraduates, graduate students, and, increasingly, continuing-education students who use MOOCs. Liberty characterizes them as ?people who are interested in learning in any capacity.?
This diverse audience is the same across the Media Lab?s social media channels ? Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.
Spoiled by choice
Liberty has an unusual problem for a social media specialist: having to curate the best stories from a flood of content. Since the Media Lab is very popular with the media, the stream of new articles and videos about it is constant.
Liberty stays on top of this flood of content by using Google Alerts. She also checks the Lab?s social media channels and her own lists of Twitter accounts for posts by Media Lab students, alumni with spinoffs, and Director?s Fellows.
While Liberty spends much of her time propagating Media Lab stories she finds online, the Media Lab also posts thought pieces about topics the community is interested in, such as 3-D printing, prosthetics, and user interfaces. These in turn become material for Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.
Every few months the Communications Group audits the Media Lab?s social media channels to see how many new followers they have. If the numbers for a channel have plateaued, Liberty will check the analytics to see which posts people liked most. She?ll then send more posts along those lines and increase her posts of photos and videos because ?those always do very well.?
What are the Media Lab?s sources for photos and videos? Again, it?s blessed with abundance. Liberty herself produces the photo series called Day in the Life of the Media Lab, saved on Pinterest and repurposed through the Media Lab?s social media channels. It gives her an opportunity to walk around the Media Lab and take photos of cool stuff: new research, kids playing with LEGO bricks, wonder on people?s faces when they see what?s happening there. It also lets her interact with researchers at the Media Lab and learn more about what they?re working on.
When it comes to videos, the Media Lab offers a virtual cascade. Multimedia producer Paula Aguilera creates the LabCAST video series. Several Media Lab groups have their own YouTube or Vimeo channels to showcase demos of their work. The Media Lab has its own video channel, featuring talks from its Conversations series. And Media Lab researchers are often tapped for speaking engagements, so there are videos of TED and TEDx talks, conferences, and other presentations.
When a Media Lab video goes viral, the Communications Group is behind the scenes helping to promote that surge. Most recently, inFORM ? Interacting with a Dynamic Shape Display, posted on the Tangible Media group?s Vimeo channel, hit the big time, with nearly 5,000 likes.
Live Tweets and Twitterfalls
The Communications Group also plays a role at the Media Lab?s Conversations, in which an invited guest participates in a public conversation with Media Lab Director Joi Ito or a Media Lab faculty member. This conversation is live webcast so that people all over the world can watch it.
Liberty and colleague Stacie Slotnick pair up to ?live tweet? the conversation. One tweets sound bites, quotes, and ideas while the other retweets what other people around the world are saying about it from their phones, tablets, and laptops. It captures a rich conversation on Twitter about the event as it?s happening.
The Conversations are held on the Media Lab?s third-floor atrium, which has a big screen behind the speakers, above their heads. During the Q&A after the presentation, a Twitterfall on the left-hand side of the screen displays what people are tweeting and retweeting, while a word cloud shows trending words from the conversation. Both the Twitterfall and the word cloud are maintained by the Media Lab?s Network and Computing Systems Group and are based on the hashtag #MLTalks.
The flagship and the future
Twitter is the Media Lab?s flagship social media channel, with the largest followship (over 160,000 followers) and the widest engagement.
One of the Communications Group?s goals is to increase the numbers and engagement on Facebook and Google+, both of which are more visual channels than Twitter. Liberty finds Google+ intriguing because of its Communities (special interest groups) ? from massive ones like Science to smaller ones for niche audiences like Science Fiction, 3-D Printing, and STEM. Reposting Media Lab articles to these targeted groups has been one of the best ways she has found to increase followers and engagement on Google+.
With the advent of Hangouts on Google+, Liberty is sensing a shift in the winds of social media. Through Hangouts, you can invite up to 10 people to join a discussion. You can see when people are engaged in the Hangout, and message and send them photos anytime. And you can turn any Hangout into a live video call.
A more public incarnation is Hangouts on Air, where you can invite participants to engage in a video chat and invite other people as observers ? much like the Media Lab?s Conversations, except that the sessions are remote. A chat box lets people comment on a Hangout on Air while it?s happening, and Google is now rolling out a Q&A feature so that people can submit questions to a moderator.
Liberty notes that to run a Hangout on Air, your Google+ account has to be merged with a YouTube account, since that is where the video will be recorded and archived.
Goals and good vibes
Along with representing the Media Lab?s research groups and reaching out to a diverse audience, the Communications Group plans to focus, over the next year, on increasing engagement with alumni through social media. While alumni with hot spinoffs often make waves on social media, those who run smaller businesses, work for Media Lab sponsor companies, or pursue research in other ways will be encouraged to join the conversation.
With a near nonstop job, how does Liberty stay charged? One boost is the positive feedback she gets from her Day in the Life photo series. It provides a strong crossover between social media and real life. She knows she?s succeeded when people who are introduced to her as the Media Lab?s social media specialist say, ?Oh, you do the Day in Life Series? I love that!?
She also connects while doing live tweets during Media Lab events. ?It just feels very cutting-edge and cool, even though people have been doing it for years,? Liberty says. ?I feel like I?m a part of something when I do it.? Engagement: it?s the name of the game when it comes to social media, for both communicators and their audiences.
If you?re looking for help in starting or refining a social media strategy for your area, MIT provides several resources, says Stephanie Hatch Leishman, MIT's social media and e-mail marketing specialist, who works in Communication Production Services (CPS). In addition to overseeing MIT Connect, she?s developed a set of Social Media Guidelines for MIT. You can contact Leishman by e-mail, by phone at 617-258-9353, or on Twitter @hatchsteph.
You can also get free online training on social media topics through lynda.com, which offers courses on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Instagram, along with tutorials such as ?Doing Content Marketing on Social Media.?
Marvin Minsky selected for Dan David Foundation Prize
Each year, the Dan David Foundation, headquartered at Tel Aviv University, selects a laureate ? for each of three time dimensions past, present and future ? who represents the culmination of innovative and interdisciplinary research fostering universal values and goals towards promotion of outstanding scientific, technological, cultural or social achievements that improve the world.
This year the Dan David Foundation International Board selected MIT professor emeritus Marvin Minsky to receive the Dan David Foundation Prize for the Future Time Dimension titled ?Artificial Intelligence: The Digital Mind." Minsky was selected as one of the founders of the field of artificial intelligence. He is cited as among the most influential intellectuals of the 20th century in a variety of disciplines, including AI, robotics, computation, learning, cognition, philosophy and optics.
Marvin Minsky is professor emeritus of media arts and sciences and a founding member of the MIT Media Lab, where he continues to teach and mentor. He came to MIT as a faculty member in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in 1958, and in 1959 co-founded the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, for which he served as co-director until 1974. He was the Donner Professor of Science at MIT from 1974 to 1989, and became the Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences in 1990.
Pioneering robotics and telepresence, Minsky is recognized for his work using computational ideas to characterize human psychological processes ? and working to endow machines with intelligence. His early 1960s papers ?Steps Towards Artificial Intelligence,? ?Matter, Mind, and Models,? and (co-authored with Seymour Papert) ?Perceptrons,? placed Minsky in the forefront of the new field of AI. With Papert, Minsky proposed a new theory they called ?The Society of Mind? ? combining developments from child psychology with their research on AI to address the complexity of intelligence.†
Minsky continued to develop this theory through the next decade, publishing in 1985 a book of the same title and proposing individual mechanisms to account for a matching psychological phenomenon. He proposed theories to account for human higher-level feelings and uniquely human resourcefulness in his 2006 sequel, titled, ?The Emotion Machine."
Minsky has received numerous awards including the ACM Turing Award in 1970, the IEEE Computer Society Computer Pioneer Award in 1995 and the Benjamin Franklin Medal from the Franklin Institute in 2001. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences, and many other societies. He completed his PhD dissertation at Princeton University in 1954. It was titled, ?Neural Nets and the Brain Model Problem.? This represented the first publication of theories and theorems about learning in neural networks, secondary reinforcement, circulating dynamic storage, and synaptic modifications.
Optogenetic toolkit goes multicolor
Optogenetics is a technique that allows scientists to control neurons? electrical activity with light by engineering them to express light-sensitive proteins. Within the past decade, it has become a very powerful tool for discovering the functions of different types of cells in the brain.
Most of these light-sensitive proteins, known as opsins, respond to light in the blue-green range. Now, a team led by MIT has discovered an opsin that is sensitive to red light, which allows researchers to independently control the activity of two populations of neurons at once, enabling much more complex studies of brain function.
?If you want to see how two different sets of cells interact, or how two populations of the same cell compete against each other, you need to be able to activate those populations independently,? says Ed Boyden, an associate professor of biological engineering and brain and cognitive sciences at MIT and a senior author of the new study.
The new opsin is one of about 60 light-sensitive proteins found in a screen of 120 species of algae. The study, which appears in the Feb. 9 online edition of Nature Methods, also yielded the fastest opsin, enabling researchers to study neuron activity patterns with millisecond timescale precision.
Boyden and Gane Ka-Shu Wong, a professor of medicine and biological sciences at the University of Alberta, are the paper?s senior authors, and the lead author is MIT postdoc Nathan Klapoetke. Researchers from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute?s Janelia Farm Research Campus, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Cologne, and the Beijing Genomics Institute also contributed to the study.
In living color
Opsins occur naturally in many algae and bacteria, which use the light-sensitive proteins to help them respond to their environment and generate energy.
To achieve optical control of neurons, scientists engineer brain cells to express the gene for an opsin, which transports ions across the cell?s membrane to alter its voltage. Depending on the opsin used, shining light on the cell either lowers the voltage and silences neuron firing, or boosts voltage and provokes the cell to generate an electrical impulse. This effect is nearly instantaneous and easily reversible.
Using this approach, researchers can selectively turn a population of cells on or off and observe what happens in the brain. However, until now, they could activate only one population at a time, because the only opsins that responded to red light also responded to blue light, so they couldn?t be paired with other opsins to control two different cell populations.
To seek additional useful opsins, the MIT researchers worked with Wong?s team at the University of Alberta, which is sequencing the transcriptomes of 1,000 plants, including some algae. (The transcriptome is similar to the genome but includes only the genes that are expressed by a cell, not the entirety of its genetic material.)
Once the team obtained genetic sequences that appeared to code for opsins, Klapoetke tested their light-responsiveness in mammalian brain tissue, working with Martha Constantine-Paton, an MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences and of biology, a member of the McGovern Institute, and an author of the paper. The red-light-sensitive opsin, which the researchers named Chrimson, can mediate neural activity in response to light with a 735-nanometer wavelength.
The researchers also discovered a blue-light-driven opsin that has two highly desirable traits: It operates at high speed, and it is sensitive to very dim light. This opsin, called Chronos, can be stimulated with levels of blue light that are too weak to activate Chrimson.
?You can use short pulses of dim blue light to drive the blue one, and you can use strong red light to drive Chrimson, and that allows you to do true two-color, zero-cross-talk activation in intact brain tissue,? says Boyden, who is a member of MIT?s Media Lab and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research.
Researchers had previously tried to modify naturally occurring opsins to make them respond faster and react to dimmer light, but trying to optimize one feature often made other features worse.
?It was apparent that when trying to engineer traits like color, light sensitivity, and kinetics, there are always tradeoffs,? Klapoetke says. ?We?re very lucky that something natural actually was more than several times faster and also five or six times more light-sensitive than anything else.?
These new opsins lend themselves to several types of studies that were not possible before, Boyden says. For one, scientists could not only manipulate activity of a cell population of interest, but also control upstream cells that influence the target population by secreting neurotransmitters.
Pairing Chrimson and Chronos could also allow scientists to study the functions of different types of cells in the same microcircuit within the brain. Such cells are usually located very close together, but with the new opsins they can be controlled independently with two different colors of light.
?I think the tools described in this excellent paper represent a major advance for both basic and translational neuroscience,? says Botond Roska, a senior group leader at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research in Switzerland, who was not part of the research team. ?Optogenetic tools that are shifted towards the infrared range, such as Chrimson described in this paper, are much better than the more blue-shifted variants since these are less toxic, activate less the pupillary reflex, and activate less the remaining photoreceptors of patients.?
Most optogenetic studies thus far have been done in mice, but Chrimson could be used for optogenetic studies of fruit flies, a commonly used experimental organism. Researchers have had trouble using blue-light-sensitive opsins in fruit flies because the light can get into the flies? eyes and startle them, interfering with the behavior being studied.
Vivek Jayaraman, a research group leader at Janelia Farms and an author of the paper, was able to show that this startle response does not occur when red light is used to stimulate Chrimson in fruit flies.
Because red light is less damaging to tissue than blue light, Chrimson also holds potential for eventual therapeutic use in humans, Boyden says. Animal studies with other opsins have shown promise in helping to restore vision after the loss of photoreceptor cells in the retina.
The researchers are now trying to modify Chrimson to respond to light in the infrared range. They are also working on making both Chrimson and Chronos faster and more light sensitive.
MIT?s portion of the project was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the MIT Media Lab, the National Science Foundation, the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a NARSAD Young Investigator Grant, the Human Frontiers Science Program, an NYSCF Robertson Neuroscience Investigator Award, the IET A.F. Harvey Prize, the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, and Janet and Sheldon Razin ?59.
Media Lab?s Neri Oxman awarded Vilcek Prize
Neri Oxman, the Sony Corporation Career Development Professor of Media Arts and Sciences and head of the MIT Media Lab?s Mediated Matter research group, has been named the 2014 recipient of the Vilcek Prize in Design.
The prize recognizes foreign-born individuals in the United States who have demonstrated exceptional design achievements early in their careers.
The $100,000 prize will be presented to Oxman in New York City in April.
Oxman, an Israeli who came to MIT in 2005 as a PhD student, is recognized as a leader of the biological revolution in design, and credited for coining the phrase ?material ecology.? Her research, inspired by nature, draws upon biology, computational design, materials science, and digital fabrication to challenge traditional design principles.
Inspired by nature, Oxman employs computer algorithms and digital fabrication technologies, such as 3-D printing, to create unique three-dimensional forms and systems. Her work has been displayed worldwide, including shows at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
The Vilcek Foundation was established in 2000 by Jan and Marica Vilcek, immigrants from the former Czechoslovakia. The mission of the Foundation ? to honor the contributions of foreign-born scholars and artists living in the United States ? was inspired by the couple?s careers in biomedical science and art history, respectively. Recent past recipients in the arts include Yo-Yo Ma and Mikhail Baryshnikov.