Interview with Alex Pentland: Can We Use Big Data to Make Society Better? – part 1

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Spiegel staff, May 26, 2014.

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 *//

… 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? … //

(full interview text).

Part 2: The NSA Makes Orwell’s 1984 World Look Almost Friendly.

* (my comment: ’stealing’ ideas is only necessary in a humanity with rules of “Harem und Hünerhof” /Harem and Poultry“, where both need a dominant male to function … in a society sharing what everyone needs there is no more need for stealing … thus no more need for supermales and supernannies, resp super world-govs and NSA – Heidi).


Book: Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread—The Lessons from a New Science, on amazon;

MIT Human Dynamics Laboratory;

Big Data on en.wikipedia;

Alex Pentland on en.wikipedia

Opinion: A Victory for European Democracy, on Spiegel Online International, by Nikolaus Blome, May 26, 2014: Although voter turnout was down in many places and right-wing populists scored significant gains, this weekend’s European Parliament election was historically important. It has shifted the balance of power in Europe in favor of voters …;

Against The Gods? A Concise Guide to Atheism and Agnosticism, 206.31 min, uploaded by Stefan Molyneux, May 20, 2014;

Ukraine: Die brennende Lunte am Pulverfass der Weltfinanzkrise, 84.52 min, von Wissensmanufaktur am 15. März 2014 auf YouTube hochgeladen: Webster Tarpley und Andreas Popp im Gespräch mit Michael Vogt;

Video with Colin Goldner: Hinter dem Lächeln des Dalai Lama (Vortrag Univ. Wien 18.05.2012), 90.57 min, von eswerdelichtTV am 28. May 2012 hochgeladen: Kritischer Vortrag über den Buddhismus und die Person des 14. Dalai Lama Tendzin Gyatsho anlässlich dessen Besuch in Österreich. Der Psychologe und Sozialpädagoge Colin Goldner referiert über die Hintergründe des tibetischen Buddhismus und die vermeintliche Menschenfreundlichkeit des Dalai Lama. Der Vortrag spannt einen Bogen von dem repressiven feudalistischen Mönchsregime, welches vor dem Einmarsch der Chinesen Tibet regiert hatte, über den Aufstieg des Dalai Lama als „Kämpfer für die Menschenrechte”, bis zu seinen Verbindungen zu faschistischen Sektenführern und der politisch Rechten in Österreich;
auf en.wikipedia:

(keine entsprechende Einträge auf de.wikipedia).

Comments are closed.