Tag Archives: David Lane

Dragon Trainer begins (Italiano)

Una bella notizia: un progetto di ricerca che ho contribuito a scrivere è stato approvato per un finanziamento nell’ambito del programma Future and Emerging Technologies della Commissione Europea. Il progetto è guidato da uno degli scienziati che ammiro di più, David Lane, e si inserisce fortemente nella tradizione di scienze della complessità associata al Santa Fe Institute. Intendiamo attaccare un problema molto grande e molto fondamentale: l’innovazione è fuori controllo. L’umanità inventa per risolvere problemi, ma finisce per crearne di nuovi: l’automobile migliora la mobilità, ma comporta riscaldamento globale e l’isolamento dello stile di vita suburbano; l’agroindustria hi-tech attenua la scarsità di cibo, ma partorisce l’epidemia dell’obesità. Dice uno dei nostri documenti di lavoro:

While newly invented artifacts are designed, innovation as a process is emergent. It happens in the context of ongoing interaction between agents that attribute new meanings to existing things and highlight new needs to be satisfied by new things. This process displays a positive feedback […] and is clearly not controlled by any one agent or restricted set of agents. As a consequence, the history of innovation is ripe with stories of completely unexpected turns. Some of these turns are toxic for humanity: phenomena like global warming or the obesity epidemics can be directly traced back to innovative activities. We try to address these phenomena by innovation, but we can’t control for more unintended consequences, perhaps even more lethal, stemming from this new innovation.

Noi vogliamo (1) costruire una teoria solida che colleghi progettazione e emergenza nell’innovazione e (2) usarla per costruire strumenti che la società civile possa usare per prevenire le conseguenze negative del progresso tecnico. Una cosa da niente! E infatti la valutazione del progetto è stellare: 4,5 su 5 per l’eccellenza tecnica e scientifica, e 5 su 5 per l’impatto sociale.

Il progetto contiene la realizzazione di Dragon Trainer, un software che dovrebbe aiutare i responsabili di comunità online ad “ammaestrarle” come si ammaestrerebbe un animale molto grande e forte (un drago, appunto), che non si può costringere con la forza ma solo influenzare. Il responsabile della creazione di Dragon Trainer sono io, ed è una bella responsabilità.

Sono molto contento, ma anche preoccupato. Ci sono fondi pubblici di ricerca, e quindi è ancora più importante produrre il miglior risultato che siamo in grado di portare a casa. Dovrò studiare come un dannato. Sto pensando seriamente di dedicarmi alla ricerca a tempo pieno per un paio d’anni a partire dal 2012. Che ne dite, faccio bene?

Dragon Trainer begins

Good news: a research project I helped to write has been approved for funding by the European Commission’s Future and Emerging Technologies program. The project is led by one of the scientists I admire the most, David Lane, and rests firmly in the complexity science tradition associated to the Santa Fe Institute. We intend to attack a big, fundamental problem: innovation is out of control. Humans invent to solve problems, but they end up creating new and scary ones. Which they tackle by innovating more, and the cycle repeats itself. Cars improve mobility, but they come with global warming and the urban sprawl. Hi tech agriculture mitigates food scarcity, but it also gives rise to the obesity epidemics. To quote one of our working documents:

While newly invented artifacts are designed, innovation as a process is emergent. It happens in the context of ongoing interaction between agents that attribute new meanings to existing things and highlight new needs to be satisfied by new things. This process displays a positive feedback […] and is clearly not controlled by any one agent or restricted set of agents. As a consequence, the history of innovation is ripe with stories of completely unexpected turns. Some of these turns are toxic for humanity: phenomena like global warming or the obesity epidemics can be directly traced back to innovative activities. We try to address these phenomena by innovation, but we can’t control for more unintended consequences, perhaps even more lethal, stemming from this new innovation.

We want (1) build a solid theory that concatenates design end emergence in innovation and (2) use it to forge tools that the civil society can use to prevent the nefarious consequences of technical change. It does not get any bigger! And in fact we got a stellar evaluation: 4.5 out of 5 for technical and scientific excellence and 5 out of 5 for social impact.

The project commits to building Dragon Trainer, an online community management augmentation software. The idea is to make a science of the art of “training” online communities to do useful things (like policy evaluation), just as you would train an animal too large and strong to push around. I am responsible for producing Dragon Trainer, and it is quite a responsibility.

I am superhappy, but worried too. Taxpayers foot most of the bill, and this makes it even more imperative to produce the absolutely best result we can. I will need to work very, very hard. I am seriously thinking of devoting myself to full time research for a couple of years starting in 2012. Does this make sense? What do yo think?

Lections from Egypt: moving on from prediction to early warning


Daniel Kaufmann had some fun compiling a list of the authoritative commentators that predicted that – unilke in Tunisia – in Egypt the disgruntled population would not take to the street, or anyway not in such a way to threaten the regime. Everybody seems to have fallen for it, from Foreign Policy to the BBC, from Time magazine to the Economist.

Forecasting was always tricky business, and is getting more so. In a society as complex as ours, even the best analyst are lousy at prediction. In an entirely different context, David Lane and others (yours truly included) are suggesting that in some cases prediction might be replaced by a system of early warning, that spots emergent social dynamics in its early stages, when correction is still possible. This would be done by combining and filtering large masses of data, many of which collected on the web. The idea — which might ring familiar to those who use the Internet as a social filtering device for information, is that the global conversation is an entity that exists at a level superior to ours, and as such might know things that none of us, mere participants, know.

To describe this hypothetical system, David likes to quote post-marketing surveillance on pharmaceuticals after the Thalidomide scandal. This drug used to be prescribed to pregnant women in the 1950s, and it could induce terrible deformities in newborn children, but only combining in exquisitely nonlinear ways with other agents: it was cleared for rollout because the lab tests did not allow to discover the problem. It was the doctors treating the mothers of deformed or sick children that discovered, in the ocean of statistical noise, the weak signal of taking Thalidomide during pregnancy. As a consequence of this story, pharmaceutical companies now work with physicians to spot correlations to weak to be spotted in the lab, but that might be revealed by processing the mass of data obtaiend by tapping all doctors.

It is a fascinating topic, at least for me. And — going back to Egypt — it leads to an unexpected conclusion: it suggests another way that Wikileaks might be a good thing. Laks feed the global conversation, and thereby increase the probability that bloggers, citizens and activists poolf their knowledge and discover emergent trends. It has been argued that Wikileaks is nefarious, because it might hinder the work of diplomacy: but without better analysis, diplomacy cannot do an acceptable job anyway.