Interview with Alex Pentland Can We Use Big Data to Make Society Better?
In a SPIEGEL interview, American data scientist Alex Pentland discusses how data streams can be used to determine the laws of human interaction. He argues the information can be used to help forge better societies.
Alex Pentland, 62, heads the Human Dynamics Lab at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is considered one of the world's leading data scientists. In his new book, "Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread -- The Lessons from a New Science," he argues that human communication behaviors follow the rules of mathematics. He says that with the aid of a computer, it is possible to monitor people in ways sufficient to detect these rules. The use of Big Data is proving to be just as important to social scientists as the telescope once was for astronomers.
SPIEGEL recently sat down with Pentland for an extensive interview about his work.
SPIEGEL: Professor Pentland, you do research on the intelligence of groups. Can a bunch of geniuses act stupid when put into a group?
Pentland: Oh, absolutely. That's how I got started on this. We were setting up a laboratory in India. We had a board of directors, some of them were among the most brilliant people in the world, but as a board, they were completely useless.
SPIEGEL: Why was that?
Pentland: There was just too much ego in the room. When one person started talking, he wouldn't stop for half an hour, so very few ideas were actually put on the table.
SPIEGEL: So even a group made up of smart people won't necessarily act intelligently?
Pentland: No. We are usually taught that intelligence is a function of what happens between an individual's two ears, but group interaction is actually at least as important. The way we manage our economy, our incentives -- everything is centered on individuals. But what we think and do is highly dependent of what our peers are doing and thinking.
SPIEGEL: And what is it that determines group intelligence?
Pentland: According to our research there are two decisive factors. Firstly, it is important that everybody explore ideas outside the group and introduce those ideas into the group discussion. Otherwise it's just the same old stuff over and over again.
SPIEGEL: In other words, you should steal ideas wherever you can.
Pentland: Exactly. We are used to emphasizing individual creativity, but we've found that creativity is mostly just the connecting of ideas that already exist. This is the source of innovation.
SPIEGEL: Usually we associate big ideas with brilliant minds -- that the Theory of Relativity came from Einstein, and cubism from Picasso
Pentland: but Picasso and Einstein, they were also swimming in a stream of ideas that surrounded them. If Einstein hadn't existed, someone else would have conceived his theory.
SPIEGEL: How about you? You work on what you call "social physics" -- is your work based on your own ideas, or were they stolen from your environment?
Pentland: Well, the basic theme of the book is almost 200 years old. Auguste Comte, the father of sociology, invented the name social physics. As to myself, my talent is that I listen to lots of ideas and I'm skeptical about them. I'm good at finding ones that don't fit with other things. And I'm good at putting them together.
SPIEGEL: How about the famous eureka moments in the history of science? The most fundamental insights happened, according to the scientists' accounts, when they were doing things like hiking, dreaming or driving.
Pentland: But that proves the point perfectly. If it were a matter of reasoning, you would hear stories that start with, "I was drawing the diagrams," or "I was just writing down the equations." But that's not what you hear. What you hear is: "I was sleeping," or "I was taking a shower." Humans have two ways of thinking: the slow way, which is based on rational consideration, and a second, much faster way, of trying to put things together by association. It's the latter that produces aha-moments, when we realize how beautifully things fit together.
SPIEGEL: You spoke of two factors that determine the efficiency of a team. What is the second?
Pentland: Yes. The second factor is whether or not everybody is talking to each other. This basically ensures that everybody is on the same page.
SPIEGEL: Do you need a boss for this? Or is it actually counterproductive to have a group leader?
Pentland: There is a kind of leadership that is actually very effective. It can be very helpful to have someone watching the conversation, and poking in every once and a while to make sure that the pattern of communication is right. Women, by the way, are very good at this, because they make sure nobody dominates the conversation and that everybody contributes.
SPIEGEL: You are describing the role of a moderator rather than a boss. A boss also has to make decisions
Pentland: yes, but not by banging on the table and saying, "This is what you have to do!" Good leadership is about arriving at a consensus. The only exception is in emergency situations -- when the enemies are coming over the hill, the traditional model of the powerful leader turns out to be a good thing. SPIEGEL: Do the rules you are describing apply to all sizes of groups?
Pentland: The larger the group, the more difficult it is to get everybody involved. With six people, it's almost a non-issue. It's a lot harder when there are 150. And at some point you reach a kind of natural limit. Everything beyond a mid-size city gets real hard to organize, with our current technology and given human nature.
SPIEGEL: Does this mean that something like the European community is misconceived and incompatible with human nature?
Pentland: I think we don't know how to administer it very well. An average person has about 150 people that they interact with, and this hasn't changed a lot since the Stone Age. Imagine that those 150 people are scattered across all the different cultural groups in the EU, so that the average EU citizen knows people from Romania as well as Portugal or Great Britain
SPIEGEL: which is pretty far from the European reality.
Pentland: That's right. The problem is that you are dealing with cultural groups which are more or less isolated one from another. In the United States it is easier, because this country was highly diverse from the beginning. You had Italians, Irishmen, Indians and Africans all mixed together. And it's a highly mobile society, so that you have people going from New York to Kansas, and from Kansas to Seattle.
SPIEGEL: How could you get a similar degree of engagement in Europe?
Pentland: I will tell you a story from Brazil. There they had the problem that all of the country's different states had very different cultures, and because of this, the country was in danger of breaking apart. That's why they changed the conscription rules for young men in the army: Instead of doing their service in their own state they henceforth had to stay elsewhere. So for two years these young men were exposed to other cultures. And when they went back home, it was these ties that held things together.
SPIEGEL: You think we need a common army in Europe?
Pentland: It doesn't have to be an army. You could do it through the university or education systems. Or by creating some sort of Peace Corps made up of unemployed young people. They could help build infrastructure for Europe -- but make sure they do it all over Europe, and not just in their hometown. That way, use the disastrous levels of unemployment among young people to bind Europe into a much more compatible set of cultural norms.
SPIEGEL: So you not only want to use your concept of social physics to describe social interaction, but you also want to engineer communication?
Pentland: Yes. We visit many different companies and organizations and analyze the pattern of communication.
SPIEGEL: And what kind of results do you get?
Pentland: You can often improve communication in very simple ways: moving people down the hall; setting up a lunchroom; the placement of the water cooler or the coffee machine. What doesn't work is having more meetings, because meetings are typically one person broadcasting and everybody else sitting there. That's not communication.
SPIEGEL: Could you give an example?
Pentland: OK, let's take a call center we investigated. Traditionally, they just had a big meeting in the morning, where everybody received their instructions. And then they just worked. And I said: "No, let's give them coffee breaks together so that they can sit around and chat." In the beginning the management was very upset about this, but then they noticed a dramatic improvement in people's ability to work with customers. The employees obviously shared their tacit knowledge during coffee breaks.
SPIEGEL: But maybe they didn't talk about their work at all. Maybe they just enjoyed the opportunity to chat and were happier afterwards.
Pentland: People talk about work all the time -- about how you deal with customers that react poorly and so on. But even when they talk about finding a babysitter, that's a part of their job.
SPIEGEL: Some of your recommendations are much more radical. You propose some very new kinds of incentives for example.
Pentland: That's right. And here, again, the goal is fundamental change: shifting from focusing on the individual to focusing on the social fabric.
SPIEGEL: What do you mean by this?
Pentland: Well, if I want to change your behavior, I could promise you some money. Or I could give the same amount of money to your buddy, but only if you change your behavior. That will force him to talk to you. And if everybody is part of a network of incentives, then everyone is sitting around saying: "Hey guys, we've got to find a way for all of us to change our behavior so that we can all be rewarded."
SPIEGEL: That's a creative idea -- but does it work in the real world?
Pentland: I'll give you an example. DARPA, which is the Defense Research Projects Agency, wanted to do something to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Internet, and wanted to highlight the power of social media. So they created a contest in which they placed ten red balloons somewhere in the United States, and the challenge was to find the location of all ten of them within one day. Hundreds of teams competed for a reward of $40,000 (29,000), and all of the teams used economic incentives, except one
SPIEGEL: which was, sure enough, your team.
Pentland: Right. We were the only team that did something different. What we said was, "We will give you money if the people you recruit find the balloon." So it became a question of social networks, and everybody said, "Wow, this is sort of fun." So we were able to recruit about 2 million people and quickly found all of the balloons.
- Part 1: Can We Use Big Data to Make Society Better?
- Part 2: The NSA 'Makes Orwell's 1984 World Look Almost Friendly'