Arquivo da tag: Redes

Plantas se comunicam e ‘brigam’ usando ‘internet de fungos’ (BBC)

Nic Fleming

Filamentos de fungos chamados micélios formam uma rede conhecida como micorriza

Uma via superrápida para tráfego de dados, que coloca em contato uma grande população de indivíduos diversos e dispersos. Essa via facilita a comunicação e colaboração entre os indivíduos, mas também abre caminho para que crimes sejam cometidos.

Parece uma descrição da internet, mas estamos falando de fungos. Os fungos – sejam eles cogumelos ou não – são formados de um emaranhado de pequenos filamentos conhecidos como micélio. O solo está cheio desta rede de micélios, que ajuda a “conectar” diferentes plantas no mesmo solo.

Muitos cientistas estudam a forma como as plantas usam essa rede de micélios para trocar nutrientes e até mesmo para “se comunicar”. Em alguns casos, as plantas formam até mesmo uma união para “sabotar” outras espécies invasoras de plantas, liberando toxinas na rede.

Cerca de 90% das plantas terrestres têm uma relação simbiótica com fungos, que é batizada de micorriza. Com a simbiose, as plantas recebem carboidratos, fósforo e nitrogênio dos fungos, que também as ajudam a extrair água do solo. Esse processo é importante no desenvolvimento das plantas.

‘Internet natural’

Filme de ficção ‘Avatar’ tinha uma ideia parecida com a ‘internet natural’ que existe na Terra

Para o especialista em fungos Paul Stamets, essa rede é uma “internet natural” do planeta Terra. Sua tese é que ela coloca em contato plantas que estão muito distantes de si e não apenas as que estão próximas. Ele traça um paralelo com o filme Avatar, de 2009, em que vários organismos em uma lua conseguem se comunicar e dividir recursos graças a uma espécie de ligação eletroquímica entre as raízes das árvores.

Só em 1997 é que foi possível comprovar concretamente algumas dessas comunicaçõeos via “internet natural”. Suzanne Simard, da Universidade de British Columbia, no Canadá, mostrou que havia uma transferência de carbono por micélio entre o abeto de Douglas (uma árvore conífera) e uma bétula. Desde então, também ficou provado que algumas plantas trocam fósforo e nitrogênio da mesma forma.

Simard acredita que árvores de grande porte usam o micélio para alimentar outras em nascimento. Sem essa ajuda, a cientista argumenta, muitas das novas árvores não conseguiriam sobreviver.

Simard conta que as plantas parecem trabalhar no sentido contrário ao observado por Charles Darwin, de competição por recursos entre espécies. Em muitos casos, espécies diferentes de plantas estão usando a rede para trocar nutrientes e se ajudarem na sobrevivência.

Os cientistas estão convencidos de que as trocas de nutrientes realmente acontece pelo fungo no solo, mas eles ainda não entendem exatamente como isso ocorre.

‘Conluio’

Uma pesquisa recente foi além. Em 2010, Ren Sem Zeng, da faculdade de agronomia da Universidade de Guangzhou, na China, conseguiu observar que algumas plantas “se comunicam entre si” para formar uma espécie de sabotagem a espécies invasoras.

A experiência foi feita com tomates plantados em vários vasos e ligados entre si por micorriza. Um dos tomates foi borrifado com o fungo Alternaria solani, que provoca doenças na planta.

Depois de 65 horas, os cientistas borrifaram outro vaso e descobriram que a resistência deste tomate era muito superior.

“Acreditamos que os tomates conseguem ‘espiar’ o que está acontecendo em outros lugares e aumentar sua resposta à doença contra uma potencial patogenia”, escreveu Zeng no artigo científico.

Ou seja, as plantas não só usam a “internet natural” para compartilhar nutrientes, mas também para formar um “conluio” contra doenças.

Esse tipo de comportamento não foi observado apenas em tomates. Em 2013, o pesquisador David Johnson, da Universidade de Aberdeen, na Escócia, também detectou isso em favas, que se protegem contra insetos mínusculos conhecidos com afídios.

Lado negro

Experiência mostrou que tomates se ‘comunicam’ pela micorriza sobre doenças

Mas assim como a internet humana, a internet natural também possui seu lado negro. A nossa internet reduz a privacidade e facilita crimes e a disseminação de vírus.

O mesmo acontece com as plantas na micorriza, segundo os cientistas. Algumas plantas não possuem clorofila e não conseguem produzir sua própria energia por fotossíntese.

Algumas plantas, como a orquídea Cephalanthera austiniae, “roubam” o carbono que necessitam de árvores das proximidades, usando a rede de micélio. Outras orquídeas que são capazes de fotossíntese roubam carbono, mesmo sem necessitar.

Esse tipo de comportamento faz com que algumas árvores soltem toxinas na rede para combater plantas que roubam recursos. Isso é comum em acácias. No entanto, cientistas duvidam da eficácia desta técnica, já que muitas toxinas acabam sendo absorvidas pelo solo ou por micróbios antes de atingir o alvo desejado.

Para vários cientistas, a internet dos fungos é um exemplo de uma grande lição do mundo natural: organismos aparentemente isolados podem estar, na verdade, conectados de alguma forma, e até depender uns do outros.

Leia a versão original em inglês desta reportagem no site BBC Earth.

Anúncios

The Creepy New Wave of the Internet (NY Review of Books)

Sue Halpern

NOVEMBER 20, 2014 ISSUE

The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism
by Jeremy Rifkin
Palgrave Macmillan, 356 pp., $28.00

Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire, and the Internet of Things
by David Rose
Scribner, 304 pp., $28.00

Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data and the Future of Privacy
by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel, with a foreword by Marc Benioff
Patrick Brewster, 225 pp., $14.45 (paper)

More Awesome Than Money: Four Boys and Their Heroic Quest to Save Your Privacy from Facebook
by Jim Dwyer
Viking, 374 pp., $27.95

A detail of Penelope Umbrico’s Sunset Portraits from 11,827,282 Flickr Sunsets on 1/7/13, 2013. For the project, Umbrico searched the website Flickr for scenes of sunsets in which the sun, not the subject, predominated. The installation, consisting of two thousand 4 x 6 C-prints, explores the idea that ‘the individual assertion of “being here” is ultimately read as a lack of individuality when faced with so many assertions that are more or less all the same.’ A collection of her work, Penelope Umbrico (photographs), was published in 2011 by Aperture.

Every day a piece of computer code is sent to me by e-mail from a website to which I subscribe called IFTTT. Those letters stand for the phrase “if this then that,” and the code is in the form of a “recipe” that has the power to animate it. Recently, for instance, I chose to enable an IFTTT recipe that read, “if the temperature in my house falls below 45 degrees Fahrenheit, then send me a text message.” It’s a simple command that heralds a significant change in how we will be living our lives when much of the material world is connected—like my thermostat—to the Internet.

It is already possible to buy Internet-enabled light bulbs that turn on when your car signals your home that you are a certain distance away and coffeemakers that sync to the alarm on your phone, as well as WiFi washer-dryers that know you are away and periodically fluff your clothes until you return, and Internet-connected slow cookers, vacuums, and refrigerators. “Check the morning weather, browse the web for recipes, explore your social networks or leave notes for your family—all from the refrigerator door,” reads the ad for one.

Welcome to the beginning of what is being touted as the Internet’s next wave by technologists, investment bankers, research organizations, and the companies that stand to rake in some of an estimated $14.4 trillion by 2022—what they call the Internet of Things (IoT). Cisco Systems, which is one of those companies, and whose CEO came up with that multitrillion-dollar figure, takes it a step further and calls this wave “the Internet of Everything,” which is both aspirational and telling. The writer and social thinker Jeremy Rifkin, whose consulting firm is working with businesses and governments to hurry this new wave along, describes it like this:

The Internet of Things will connect every thing with everyone in an integrated global network. People, machines, natural resources, production lines, logistics networks, consumption habits, recycling flows, and virtually every other aspect of economic and social life will be linked via sensors and software to the IoT platform, continually feeding Big Data to every node—businesses, homes, vehicles—moment to moment, in real time. Big Data, in turn, will be processed with advanced analytics, transformed into predictive algorithms, and programmed into automated systems to improve thermodynamic efficiencies, dramatically increase productivity, and reduce the marginal cost of producing and delivering a full range of goods and services to near zero across the entire economy.

In Rifkin’s estimation, all this connectivity will bring on the “Third Industrial Revolution,” poised as he believes it is to not merely redefine our relationship to machines and their relationship to one another, but to overtake and overthrow capitalism once the efficiencies of the Internet of Things undermine the market system, dropping the cost of producing goods to, basically, nothing. His recent book, The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism, is a paean to this coming epoch.

It is also deeply wishful, as many prospective arguments are, even when they start from fact. And the fact is, the Internet of Things is happening, and happening quickly. Rifkin notes that in 2007 there were ten million sensors of all kinds connected to the Internet, a number he says will increase to 100 trillion by 2030. A lot of these are small radio-frequency identification (RFID) microchips attached to goods as they crisscross the globe, but there are also sensors on vending machines, delivery trucks, cattle and other farm animals, cell phones, cars, weather-monitoring equipment, NFL football helmets, jet engines, and running shoes, among other things, generating data meant to streamline, inform, and increase productivity, often by bypassing human intervention. Additionally, the number of autonomous Internet-connected devices such as cell phones—devices that communicate directly with one another—now doubles every five years, growing from 12.5 billion in 2010 to an estimated 25 billion next year and 50 billion by 2020.

For years, a cohort of technologists, most notably Ray Kurzweil, the writer, inventor, and director of engineering at Google, have been predicting the day when computer intelligence surpasses human intelligence and merges with it in what they call the Singularity. We are not there yet, but a kind of singularity is already upon us as we swallow pills embedded with microscopic computer chips, activated by stomach acids, that will be able to report compliance with our doctor’s orders (or not) directly to our electronic medical records. Then there is the singularity that occurs when we outfit our bodies with “wearable technology” that sends data about our physical activity, heart rate, respiration, and sleep patterns to a database in the cloud as well as to our mobile phones and computers (and to Facebook and our insurance company and our employer).

Cisco Systems, for instance, which is already deep into wearable technology, is working on a platform called “the Connected Athlete” that “turns the athlete’s body into a distributed system of sensors and network intelligence…[so] the athlete becomes more than just a competitor—he or she becomes a Wireless Body Area Network, or WBAN.” Wearable technology, which generated $800 million in 2013, is expected to make nearly twice that this year. These are numbers that not only represent sales, but the public’s acceptance of, and habituation to, becoming one of the things connected to and through the Internet.

One reason that it has been easy to miss the emergence of the Internet of Things, and therefore miss its significance, is that much of what is presented to the public as its avatars seems superfluous and beside the point. An alarm clock that emits the scent of bacon, a glow ball that signals if it is too windy to go out sailing, and an “egg minder” that tells you how many eggs are in your refrigerator no matter where you are in the (Internet-connected) world, revolutionary as they may be, hardly seem the stuff of revolutions; because they are novelties, they obscure what is novel about them.

And then there is the creepiness factor. In the weeks before the general release of Google Glass, Google’s $1,500 see-through eyeglass computer that lets the wearer record what she is seeing and hearing, the press reported a number of incidents in which early adopters were physically accosted by people offended by the product’s intrusiveness. Enough is enough, the Glass opponents were saying.

Why a small cohort of people encountering Google Glass for the first time found it disturbing is the same reason that David Rose, an instructor at MIT and the founder of a company that embeds Internet connectivity into everyday devices like umbrellas and medicine vials, celebrates it and waxes nearly poetic on the potential of “heads up displays.” As he writes in Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire, and the Internet of Things, such devices have the potential to radically transform human encounters. Rose imagines a party where

Wearing your fashionable [heads up] display, you will instruct the device to display the people’s names and key biographical info above their heads. In the business meeting, you will call up information about previous meetings and agenda items. The HUD display will call up useful websites, tap into social networks, and dig into massive info sources…. You will fact-check your friends and colleagues…. You will also engage in real-time messaging, including videoconferencing with friends or colleagues who will participate, coach, consult, or lurk.
Whether this scenario excites or repels you, it represents the vision of more than one of the players moving us in the direction of pervasive connectivity. Rose’s company, Ambient Devices, has been at the forefront of what he calls “enchanting” objects—that is, connecting them to the Internet to make them “extraordinary.” This is a task that Glenn Lurie, the CEO of ATT Mobility, believes is “spot on.” Among these enchanted objects are the Google Latitude Doorbell that “lets you know where your family members are and when they are approaching home,” an umbrella that turns blue when it is about to rain so you might be inspired to take it with you, and a jacket that gives you a hug every time someone likes your Facebook post.

Rose envisions “an enchanted wall in your kitchen that could display, through lines of colored light, the trends and patterns of your loved ones’ moods,” because it will offer “a better understanding of [the] hidden thoughts and emotions that are relevant to us….” If his account of a mood wall seems unduly fanciful (and nutty), it should be noted that this summer, British Airways gave passengers flying from New York to London blankets embedded with neurosensors to track how they were feeling. Apparently this was more scientific than simply asking them. According to one report:

When the fiber optics woven into the blanket turned red, flight attendants knew that the passengers were feeling stressed and anxious. Blue blankets were a sign that the passenger was feeling calm and relaxed.
Thus the airline learned that passengers were happiest when eating and drinking, and most relaxed when sleeping.

While, arguably, this “finding” is as trivial as an umbrella that turns blue when it’s going to rain, there is nothing trivial about collecting personal data, as innocuous as that data may seem. It takes very little imagination to foresee how the kitchen mood wall could lead to advertisements for antidepressants that follow you around the Web, or trigger an alert to your employer, or show up on your Facebook page because, according to Robert Scoble and Shel Israel in Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data and the Future of Privacy, Facebook “wants to build a system that anticipates your needs.”

It takes even less imagination to foresee how information about your comings and goings obtained from the Google Latitude Doorbell could be used in a court of law. Cars are now outfitted with scores of sensors, including ones in the seats that determine how many passengers are in them, as well as with an “event data recorder” (EDR), which is the automobile equivalent of an airplane’s black box. As Scoble and Israel report in Age of Context, “the general legal consensus is that police will be able to subpoena car logs the same way they now subpoena phone records.”

Meanwhile, cars themselves are becoming computers on wheels, with operating system updates coming wirelessly over the air, and with increasing capacity to “understand” their owners. As Scoble and Israel tell it:

They not only adjust seat positions and mirrors automatically, but soon they’ll also know your preferences in music, service stations, dining spots and hotels…. They know when you are headed home, and soon they’ll be able to remind you to stop at the market to get a dessert for dinner.
Recent revelations from the journalist Glenn Greenwald put the number of Americans under government surveillance at a colossal 1.2 million people. Once the Internet of Things is in place, that number might easily expand to include everyone else, because a system that can remind you to stop at the market for dessert is a system that knows who you are and where you are and what you’ve been doing and with whom you’ve been doing it. And this is information we give out freely, or unwittingly, and largely without question or complaint, trading it for convenience, or what passes for convenience.

halpern_2-112014.jpg
Michael Cogliantry
The journalist A.J. Jacobs wearing data-collecting sensors to keep track of his health and fitness; from Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt’s The Human Face of Big Data, published in 2012 by Against All Odds
In other words, as human behavior is tracked and merchandized on a massive scale, the Internet of Things creates the perfect conditions to bolster and expand the surveillance state. In the world of the Internet of Things, your car, your heating system, your refrigerator, your fitness apps, your credit card, your television set, your window shades, your scale, your medications, your camera, your heart rate monitor, your electric toothbrush, and your washing machine—to say nothing of your phone—generate a continuous stream of data that resides largely out of reach of the individual but not of those willing to pay for it or in other ways commandeer it.

That is the point: the Internet of Things is about the “dataization” of our bodies, ourselves, and our environment. As a post on the tech website Gigaom put it, “The Internet of Things isn’t about things. It’s about cheap data.” Lots and lots of it. “The more you tell the world about yourself, the more the world can give you what you want,” says Sam Lessin, the head of Facebook’s Identity Product Group. It’s a sentiment shared by Scoble and Israel, who write:

The more the technology knows about you, the more benefits you will receive. That can leave you with the chilling sensation that big data is watching you. In the vast majority of cases, we believe the coming benefits are worth that trade-off.
So, too, does Jeremy Rifkin, who dismisses our legal, social, and cultural affinity for privacy as, essentially, a bourgeois affectation—a remnant of the enclosure laws that spawned capitalism:

Connecting everyone and everything in a neural network brings the human race out of the age of privacy, a defining characteristic of modernity, and into the era of transparency. While privacy has long been considered a fundamental right, it has never been an inherent right. Indeed, for all of human history, until the modern era, life was lived more or less publicly….
In virtually every society that we know of before the modern era, people bathed together in public, often urinated and defecated in public, ate at communal tables, frequently engaged in sexual intimacy in public, and slept huddled together en masse. It wasn’t until the early capitalist era that people began to retreat behind locked doors.
As anyone who has spent any time on Facebook knows, transparency is a fiction—literally. Social media is about presenting a curated self; it is opacity masquerading as transparency. In a sense, then, it is about preserving privacy. So when Rifkin claims that for young people, “privacy has lost much of its appeal,” he is either confusing sharing (as in sharing pictures of a vacation in Spain) with openness, or he is acknowledging that young people, especially, have become inured to the trade-offs they are making to use services like Facebook. (But they are not completely inured to it, as demonstrated by both Jim Dwyer’s painstaking book More Awesome Than Money, about the failed race to build a noncommercial social media site called Diaspora in 2010, as well as the overwhelming response—as many as 31,000 requests an hour for invitations—to the recent announcement that there soon will be a Facebook alternative, Ello, that does not collect or sell users’ data.)

These trade-offs will only increase as the quotidian becomes digitized, leaving fewer and fewer opportunities to opt out. It’s one thing to edit the self that is broadcast on Facebook and Twitter, but the Internet of Things, which knows our viewing habits, grooming rituals, medical histories, and more, allows no such interventions—unless it is our behaviors and curiosities and idiosyncracies themselves that end up on the cutting room floor.

Even so, no matter what we do, the ubiquity of the Internet of Things is putting us squarely in the path of hackers, who will have almost unlimited portals into our digital lives. When, last winter, cybercriminals broke into more than 100,000 Internet-enabled appliances including refrigerators and sent out 750,000 spam e-mails to their users, they demonstrated just how vulnerable Internet-connected machines are.

Not long after that, Forbes reported that security researchers had come up with a $20 tool that was able to remotely control a car’s steering, brakes, acceleration, locks, and lights. It was an experiment that, again, showed how simple it is to manipulate and sabotage the smartest of machines, even though—but really because—a car is now, in the words of a Ford executive, a “cognitive device.”

More recently, a study of ten popular IoT devices by the computer company Hewlett-Packard uncovered a total of 250 security flaws among them. As Jerry Michalski, a former tech industry analyst and founder of the REX think tank, observed in a recent Pew study: “Most of the devices exposed on the internet will be vulnerable. They will also be prone to unintended consequences: they will do things nobody designed for beforehand, most of which will be undesirable.”

Breaking into a home system so that the refrigerator will send out spam that will flood your e-mail and hacking a car to trigger a crash are, of course, terrible and real possibilities, yet as bad as they may be, they are limited in scope. As IoT technology is adopted in manufacturing, logistics, and energy generation and distribution, the vulnerabilities do not have to scale up for the stakes to soar. In a New York Times article last year, Matthew Wald wrote:

If an adversary lands a knockout blow [to the energy grid]…it could black out vast areas of the continent for weeks; interrupt supplies of water, gasoline, diesel fuel and fresh food; shut down communications; and create disruptions of a scale that was only hinted at by Hurricane Sandy and the attacks of Sept. 11.
In that same article, Wald noted that though government officials, law enforcement personnel, National Guard members, and utility workers had been brought together to go through a worst-case scenario practice drill, they often seemed to be speaking different languages, which did not bode well for an effective response to what is recognized as a near inevitability. (Last year the Department of Homeland Security responded to 256 cyberattacks, half of them directed at the electrical grid. This was double the number for 2012.)

This Babel problem dogs the whole Internet of Things venture. After the “things” are connected to the Internet, they need to communicate with one another: your smart TV to your smart light bulbs to your smart door locks to your smart socks (yes, they exist). And if there is no lingua franca—which there isn’t so far—then when that television breaks or becomes obsolete (because soon enough there will be an even smarter one), your choices will be limited by what language is connecting all your stuff. Though there are industry groups trying to unify the platform, in September Apple offered a glimpse of how the Internet of Things actually might play out, when it introduced the company’s new smart watch, mobile payment system, health apps, and other, seemingly random, additions to its product line. As Mat Honan virtually shouted in Wired:

Apple is building a world in which there is a computer in your every interaction, waking and sleeping. A computer in your pocket. A computer on your body. A computer paying for all your purchases. A computer opening your hotel room door. A computer monitoring your movements as you walk though the mall. A computer watching you sleep. A computer controlling the devices in your home. A computer that tells you where you parked. A computer taking your pulse, telling you how many steps you took, how high you climbed and how many calories you burned—and sharing it all with your friends…. THIS IS THE NEW APPLE ECOSYSTEM. APPLE HAS TURNED OUR WORLD INTO ONE BIG UBIQUITOUS COMPUTER.
The ecosystem may be lush, but it will be, by design, limited. Call it the Internet of Proprietary Things.

For many of us, it is difficult to imagine smart watches and WiFi-enabled light bulbs leading to a new world order, whether that new world order is a surveillance state that knows more about us than we do about ourselves or the techno-utopia envisioned by Jeremy Rifkin, where people can make much of what they need on 3-D printers powered by solar panels and unleashed human creativity. Because home automation is likely to be expensive—it will take a lot of eggs before the egg minder pays for itself—it is unlikely that those watches and light bulbs will be the primary driver of the Internet of Things, though they will be its showcase.

Rather, the Internet’s third wave will be propelled by businesses that are able to rationalize their operations by replacing people with machines, using sensors to simplify distribution patterns and reduce inventories, deploying algorithms that eliminate human error, and so on. Those business savings are crucial to Rifkin’s vision of the Third Industrial Revolution, not simply because they have the potential to bring down the price of consumer goods, but because, for the first time, a central tenet of capitalism—that increased productivity requires increased human labor—will no longer hold. And once productivity is unmoored from labor, he argues, capitalism will not be able to support itself, either ideologically or practically.

What will rise in place of capitalism is what Rifkin calls the “collaborative commons,” where goods and property are shared, and the distinction between those who own the means of production and those who are beholden to those who own the means of production disappears. “The old paradigm of owners and workers, and of sellers and consumers, is beginning to break down,” he writes.

Consumers are becoming their own producers, eliminating the distinction. Prosumers will increasingly be able to produce, consume, and share their own goods…. The automation of work is already beginning to free up human labor to migrate to the evolving social economy…. The Internet of Things frees human beings from the market economy to pursue nonmaterial shared interests on the Collaborative Commons.
Rifkin’s vision that people will occupy themselves with more fulfilling activities like making music and self-publishing novels once they are freed from work, while machines do the heavy lifting, is offered at a moment when a new kind of structural unemployment born of robotics, big data, and artificial intelligence takes hold globally, and traditional ways of making a living disappear. Rifkin’s claims may be comforting, but they are illusory and misleading. (We’ve also heard this before, in 1845, when Marx wrote in The German Ideology that under communism people would be “free to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, [and] criticize after dinner.”)

As an example, Rifkin points to Etsy, the online marketplace where thousands of “prosumers” sell their crafts, as a model for what he dubs the new creative economy. “Currently 900,000 small producers of goods advertise at no cost on the Etsy website,” he writes.

Nearly 60 million consumers per month from around the world browse the website, often interacting personally with suppliers…. This form of laterally scaled marketing puts the small enterprise on a level playing field with the big boys, allowing them to reach a worldwide user market at a fraction of the cost.
All that may be accurate and yet largely irrelevant if the goal is for those 900,000 small producers to make an actual living. As Amanda Hess wrote last year in Slate:

Etsy says its crafters are “thinking and acting like entrepreneurs,” but they’re not thinking or acting like very effective ones. Seventy-four percent of Etsy sellers consider their shop a “business,” including 65 percent of sellers who made less than $100 last year.
While it is true that a do-it-yourself subculture is thriving, and sharing cars, tools, houses, and other property is becoming more common, it is also true that much of this activity is happening under duress as steady employment disappears. As an article in The New York Times this past summer made clear, employment in the sharing economy, also known as the gig economy, where people piece together an income by driving for Uber and delivering groceries for Instacart, leaves them little time for hunting and fishing, unless it’s hunting for work and fishing under a shared couch for loose change.

So here comes the Internet’s Third Wave. In its wake jobs will disappear, work will morph, and a lot of money will be made by the companies, consultants, and investment banks that saw it coming. Privacy will disappear, too, and our intimate spaces will become advertising platforms—last December Google sent a letter to the SEC explaining how it might run ads on home appliances—and we may be too busy trying to get our toaster to communicate with our bathroom scale to notice. Technology, which allows us to augment and extend our native capabilities, tends to evolve haphazardly, and the future that is imagined for it—good or bad—is almost always historical, which is to say, naive.

Forming consensus in social networks (Science Daily)

Date: September 3, 2014

Source: University of Miami

Summary: To understand the process through which we operate as a group, and to explain why we do what we do, researchers have developed a novel computational model and the corresponding conditions for reaching consensus in a wide range of situations.


Social networks have become a dominant force in society. Family, friends, peers, community leaders and media communicators are all part of people’s social networks. Individuals within a network may have different opinions on important issues, but it’s their collective actions that determine the path society takes.

To understand the process through which we operate as a group, and to explain why we do what we do, researchers have developed a novel computational model and the corresponding conditions for reaching consensus in a wide range of situations. The findings are published in the August 2014 issue on Signal Processing for Social Networks of the IEEE Journal of Selected Topics in Signal Processing.

“We wanted to provide a new method for studying the exchange of opinions and evidence in networks,” said Kamal Premaratne, professor of electrical and computer engineering, at the University of Miami (UM) and principal investigator of the study. “The new model helps us understand the collective behavior of adaptive agents–people, sensors, data bases or abstract entities–by analyzing communication patterns that are characteristic of social networks.”

The model addresses some fundamental questions: what is a good way to model opinions and how these opinions are updated, and when is consensus reached.

One key feature of the new model is its capacity to handle the uncertainties associated with soft data (such as opinions of people) in combination with hard data (facts and numbers).

“Human-generated opinions are more nuanced than physical data and require rich models to capture them,” said Manohar N. Murthi, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at UM and co-author of the study. “Our study takes into account the difficulties associated with the unstructured nature of the network,” he adds. “By using a new ‘belief updating mechanism,’ our work establishes the conditions under which agents can reach a consensus, even in the presence of these difficulties.”

The agents exchange and revise their beliefs through their interaction with other agents. The interaction is usually local, in the sense that only neighboring agents in the network exchange information, for the purpose of updating one’s belief or opinion. The goal is for the group of agents in a network to arrive at a consensus that is somehow ‘similar’ to the ground truth — what has been confirmed by the gathering of objective data.

In previous works, consensus achieved by the agents was completely dependent on how agents update their beliefs. In other words, depending on the updating scheme being utilized, one can get different consensus states. The consensus in the current model is more rational or meaningful.

“In our work, the consensus is consistent with a reliable estimate of the ground truth, if it is available,” Premaratne said. “This consistency is very important, because it allows us to estimate how credible each agent is.”

According to the model, if the consensus opinion is closer to an agent’s opinion, then one can say that this agent is more credible. On the other hand, if the consensus opinion is very different from an agent’s opinion, then it can be inferred that this agent is less credible.

“The fact that the same strategy can be used even in the absence of a ground truth is of immense importance because, in practice, we often have to determine if an agent is credible or not when we don’t have knowledge of the ground truth,” Murthi said.

In the future, the researchers would like to expand their model to include the formation of opinion clusters, where each cluster of agents share similar opinions. Clustering can be seen in the emergence of extremism, minority opinion spreading, the appearance of political affiliations, or affinity for a particular product, for example.

 

Journal Reference:

  1. Thanuka L. Wickramarathne, Kamal Premaratne, Manohar N. Murthi, Nitesh V. Chawla. Convergence Analysis of Iterated Belief Revision in Complex Fusion Environments. IEEE Journal of Selected Topics in Signal Processing, 2014; 8 (4): 598 DOI: 10.1109/JSTSP.2014.2314854

Beyond the bones: The archaeology of human networks (New Scientist)

21 July 2014 by Alun Anderson

Magazine issue 2978

Book information
Thinking Big: How the evolution of social life shaped the human mindby Clive Gamble, John Gowlett and Robin Dunbar
Published by: Thames & Hudson
Price: £18.95
Human Evolution: A Pelican introduction by Robin Dunbar
Published by: Pelican Books
Price: £5.99

Did a focus on local life leave Neanderthals perilously isolated? (Image: Elisabeth Daynes/SPL)

The idea of human as networker is fast replacing the idea of human as toolmaker in the story of the human brain, claim two new books on our evolution

“HELL is other people,” goes Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous line. It is a hell that may have created us and our culture, judging by two new books. They show that the idea that we are defined by our struggles to deal with our fellow humans is shaking up archaeology and how we think about the key force driving human evolution.

The first book is Thinking Big by archaeologists Clive Gamble and John Gowlett and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar. It is the story of a seven-year project – From Lucy to Language – that confronted archaeologists with the social brain hypothesis of human evolution.

The result is a dramatic demolition of the “stones and bones” approach to archaeology, which keeps researchers firmly fixed only on the physical evidence they dig up, and a move towards a grand look at the evolving human mind. There is “more to humanity than the bits of chipped bone”, write the authors as they seek a framework for all human psychological traits, from kinship and laughter to language and ceremony. Old dogma is derided as never moving beyond “WYSWTW” (What You See is What There Was).

The second book is a solo effort by Dunbar, the key thinker behind the social brain hypothesis. In Human Evolution, he lays out the big ideas that the archaeologists later took up. At its heart is the observation that as brains grew bigger, so did the groups we live in: bigger brains were built for and by social life. Modern humans have a cognitive limit of about 150 friends and family (the well-known “Dunbar’s number”). Within that circle are an average of five “intimates”, 15 best friends and 50 good friends. Chimps have an average community size of 55.

Studies of living, non-human primates show why you might need bigger brains to live in bigger groups. The more others are around, the more likely you are to be bullied out of a juicy food patch or a safe sleeping site. Such stress can be hell, especially for low-ranking females, who can be driven into infertility. To cope, primates create cliques of allies which they sustain through the pleasurable endorphin rush induced by regular mutual grooming. This solution fails if groups grow bigger, for there is not enough time for one-on-one attention. Bigger brains are key to developing smarter ways of dealing with others, the theory goes.

For Dunbar, these included laughter and singing, both great endorphin-releasers within groups. There was also fire, which gave light so evenings could be used for cooking and more “social grooming”. Then came language, together with a growing ability to read others’ intentions, which ultimately made it possible to tell stories, maintain far-flung relationships and usereligion to bind communities.

The Thinking Big archaeologists take from Dunbar the grand hypothesis that social life drives human change, switching from a view of “man the toolmaker” to “man the networker”. Alongside that, the proven relationship between brain sizeMovie Camera, group size and mental skills makes it possible to estimate the size of groups our ancestors lived in and their capacity to interact with others.

A fresh look at the Neanderthals is telling. They dominated Europe for 250,000 years, much longer than modern humans. They were skilled hunters, toolmakers and had mastered fire. Their brain size suggests they lived in groups of about 110 and had the cognitive skills to understand the feelings of others. That fits well with archaeological evidence that older and disabled Neanderthals were cared for: they perhaps knew compassion.

So why did they vanish so fast during a time of changing climate, when modern humans prospered? It may be that their mental skills were not quite adequate to maintain relationships beyond immediate group members, something we can do easily. That may have been crucial to our success: in hard times, bigger networks can mean gaining help from distant friends who are still doing well, and who you’ll help in turn. Without that “social storage” of resources, local extinction may loom. Archaeological evidence again tallies with the social brain theory: one study shows that 70 per cent of the raw materials of Neanderthal tools travelled less than 25 kilometres, while 60 per cent of those of contemporaneous humans had travelled more than 25 kilometres.

The two books fit well together but are very different. Thinking Big inspires, but much wonderful research is passed over too briefly amid general argument. An exception is a story from Beeches Pit, a 400,000-year-old site in the east of England. Archaeologists there painstakingly reassembled the flint flakes struck from a rock in the process of making a hand axe. Two flakes were found burnt bright red; they had fallen into a fire just in front of the axe-maker. We can almost see our ancestors working around what must have been a communal fire, for no one person could have gathered enough wood to keep it burning.

Dunbar’s solo work, Human Evolution, however, is a must-read. It has the great strength of showing you the inner workings of an imaginative mind, while allowing you the freedom to think, and even to disagree about whether that hellish social pressure really has given us our distinct cognitive design, along with science and the arts.

This article appeared in print under the headline “Beyond bones and stones”

Alun Anderson is a consultant for New Scientist

Life in Code and Software (livingbooksaboutlife.org)

LivingCodeSoftwareCover.jpg

Mediated Life in a Complex Computational Ecology
ISBN: 978-1-60785-283-4
edited by David M. Berry

Contents

Introduction: What is Code and Software?

This book explores the relationship between living, code and software. Technologies of code and software increasingly make up an important part of our urban environment. Indeed, their reach stretches to even quite remote areas of the world. Life in Code and Software introduces and explores the way in which code and software are becoming the conditions of possibility for human living, crucially forming a computational ecology, made up of disparate software ecologies, that we inhabit. As such we need to take account of this new computational environment and think about how today we live in a highly mediated, code-based world. That is, we live in a world where computational concepts and ideas are foundational, or ontological, which I call computationality, and within which, code and software become the paradigmatic forms of knowing and doing. Such that other candidates for this role, such as: air, the economy, evolution, the environment, satellites, etc., are understood and explained through computational concepts and categories. (more…)

Thinking Software

Eric W. Weisstein 
What is a Turing Machine?
David Barker-Plummer 
Turing Machines
Achim Jung 
A Short Introduction to the Lambda Calculus
Luciana Parisi & Stamatia Portanova 
Soft Thought (in architecture and choreography)
David M. Berry 
Understanding Digital Humanities
Edsger W. Dijkstra 
Go To Statement Considered Harmful
Alan M. Turing 
Computing Machinery and Intelligence
Martin Gardner 
The Fantastic Combinations of John Conway’s New Solitaire Game ‘Life’
David Golumbia 
Computation, Gender, and Human Thinking
Alan M. Turing 
Extract from On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungs Problem

Video of a Turing Machine – Overview

Kevin Slavin 
How Algorithms Shape Our World

Video shows how these complex computer programs determine: espionage tactics, stock prices, movie scripts, and architecture.

Code Literacy (‘iteracy’)

David M. Berry 
Iteracy: Reading, Writing and Running Code
Ian Bogost 
Procedural Literacy: Problem Solving with Programming, Systems, & Play
Cathy Davidson 
Why We Need a 4th R: Reading, wRiting, aRithmetic, algoRithms
Jeannette M. Wing 
Computational Thinking
Stephan Ramsay 
On Building
Edsger W. Dijkstra 
On the Cruelty of Really Teaching Computing Science
Louis McCallum and Davy Smith 
Show Us Your Screens

A short documentary about live coding practise by Louis McCallum and Davy Smith.

Jeannette M. Wing 
Computational Thinking and Thinking About Computing’

Wing argues that computational thinking will be a fundamental skill used by everyone in the world. To reading, writing, and arithmetic, she adds computational thinking to everyones’ analytical ability.

why the lucky stiff 
Hackety Hack: Learning to Code

why the lucky stiff (or _why) is a computer programmer, talking about learning to code.

Decoding Code

David M. Berry 
A Contribution Towards a Grammar of Code
Mark C. Marino 
Critical Code Studies
Lev Manovich 
Software Takes Command
Dennis G. Jerz 
Somewhere Nearby is Colossal Cave: Examining Will Crowther’s Original “Adventure” in Code and in Kentucky
Aleksandr Matrosov, Eugene Rodionov, David Harley, and Juraj Malcho, J. 
Stuxnet Under the Microscope
Ralph Langner 
Cracking Stuxnet, a 21st-century Cyber Weapon

A fascinating look inside cyber-forensics and the processes of reading code to understand how it works and what it attacks.

Stephen Ramsay 
Algorithms are Thoughts, Chainsaws are Tools

A short film on livecoding presented as part of the Critical Code Studies Working Group, March 2010, by Stephen Ramsay. Presents a “live reading” of a performance by composer Andrew Sorensen.

Wendy Chun 
Critical Code Studies

Wendy Chun giving a lecture on code studies and reading source code.

Federica Frabetti 
Critical Code Studies

Federica Frabetti giving a lecture on code studies and reading source code.

David M. Berry 
Thinking Software: Realtime Streams and Knowledge in the Digital Age

As software/code increasingly structures the contemporary world, curiously, it also withdraws, and becomes harder and harder for us to focus on as it is embedded, hidden, off-shored or merely forgotten about. The challenge is to bring software/code back into visibility so that we can pay attention to both what it is (ontology/medium), where it has come from (media archaeology/genealogy) but also what it is doing (through a form of mechanology), so we can understand this ‘dynamic of organized inorganic matter’.

Software Ecologies

Gabriella Coleman 
The Anthropology of Hackers
Felix Guattari 
The Three Ecologies
Robert Kitchin 
The Programmable City
Bruno Latour 
The Whole is Always Smaller Than Its Parts- A Digital Test of Gabriel Tarde’s Monads
Mathew Fuller and Sonia Matos 
Feral Computing: From Ubiquitous Calculation to Wild Interactions
Jussi Parikka 
Media Ecologies and Imaginary Media: Transversal Expansions, Contractions, and Foldings
David Gelernter 
Time to Start Taking the Internet Seriously
Adrian Mackenzie 
The Problem of Computer Code: Leviathan or Common Power?
Adrian Mackenzie 
Wirelessness as Experience of Transition
Thomas Goetz 
Harnessing the Power of Feedback Loops
Christian Ulrik Andersen & Søren Pold 
The Scripted Spaces of Urban Ubiquitous Computing: The Experience, Poetics, and Politics of Public Scripted Space
B.J. Fogg, Gregory Cuellar, and David Danielson 
Motivating, Influencing, and Persuading Users
Alexander R. Galloway 
“Deleuze and Computers” – Alexander R. Galloway

“Deleuze and Computers” – a lecture by Alexander R. Galloway at the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on December 2nd, 2011.

Gary Wolf 
The Quantified Self

The notion of using computational devices in everyday life to record everything about you.

Gary Kovacs 
Tracking the Trackers

As you surf the Web, information is being collected about you.

Michael Najjar 
How Art Envisions Our Future

Data, information, computation, and technology mediated through art

Attributions

A ‘Frozen’ PDF Version of this Living Book

Download a ‘frozen’ PDF version of this book as it appeared on 13th July 2012

A mobilidade dos movimentos sociais (Fapesp)

Análise das redes de organizações da sociedade civil contraria tese da “onguização”

MÁRCIO FERRARI | Edição 216 – Fevereiro de 2014

© NARA ISODA

Movimentos sociais tiveram papéis ativos nos processos de democratização ocorridos na América Latina nas últimas décadas do século XX. Daquele período até os dias de hoje, muitos passaram por uma evolução amplamente registrada na literatura das ciências sociais, especialmente naquela dedicada ao estudo da sociedade civil na região. Um aspecto quase consensual entre os pesquisadores do setor é que a partir dos anos 1990 houve uma renovação da sociedade civil e que ela se deu de forma substitutiva – isto é, com certos tipos de atores tomando o lugar de outros. Isso teria culminado, a partir dos anos 1990, numa preponderância das organizações não governamentais (ONGs), deslocamento que ficou conhecido como “onguização” dos movimentos sociais, entre os que estudam esses fenômenos.

Em suma, os movimentos populares, formados pelos próprios interessados nas demandas de mudança, teriam cedido espaço para organizações que também defendem mudanças, mas em nome de grupos que não são seus membros constituintes (atividade chamada de advocacy nas ciências sociais). Essas ações teriam acarretado uma despolitização da sociedade civil.

O cientista político Adrian Gurza Lavalle, da Faculdade de Filosofia, Letras e Ciências Humanas da Universidade de São Paulo (FFLCH-USP), pesquisador do Centro de Estudos da Metrópole (CEM), no entanto, vem conduzindo estudos que contradizem a tese da “onguização”. Um mapeamento das organizações em dois dos maiores conglomerados urbanos da América Latina, São Paulo e Cidade do México, que configuram as “ecologias organizacionais” das cidades da região, demonstrou que as ONGs conquistaram e mantiveram protagonismo, mas os movimentos sociais também estão em posição de centralidade, apesar das predições em contrário. “Nossas pesquisas contrariam diagnósticos céticos que mostram uma sociedade civil de organizações orientadas principalmente para a prestação de serviços e a trabalhar com assuntos públicos de modo desenraizado ou pouco voltado para a população de baixa renda”, diz Gurza Lavalle, que também é pesquisador do Centro Brasileiro de Análise e Planejamento (Cebrap). “Mais: elas mostram que a sociedade civil se modernizou, se diversificou e se especializou funcionalmente, tornando as ecologias organizacionais da região mais complexas, sem que essa complexidade implique a substituição de um tipo de ator por outro.”

© MARA ISODA

Essas conclusões vêm de uma sequência de estudos comandados por ele nos últimos anos. Os mais recentes foram desenvolvidos em coautoria com Natália Bueno no CEM, um dos 17 Centros de Pesquisa, Inovação e Difusão (Cepid) financiados pela FAPESP. O trabalho tem como pesquisadores convidados Ernesto Isunza Vera (Centro de Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social, de Xalapa, México) e Elisa Reis (Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro). Concentra-se no papel das organizações civis e na composição das ecologias organizacionais nas sociedades civis de diversas cidades no México e no Brasil.

O que o cientista político apresenta nos seus estudos de rede pode ser uma contribuição para que os tomadores de decisão conheçam melhor a heterogeneidade das organizações civis. “Há implicações claras para a regulação sobre o terceiro setor, no sentido de que ela se torne menos uma camisa de força e mais um marco que ofereça segurança jurídica aos diferentes tipos de organizações da sociedade civil que recebem recursos públicos ou exercem funções públicas”, diz o pesquisador.

“O trabalho que vem sendo realizado por Gurza Lavalle, seus alunos e colaboradores é especialmente valioso porque, por meio da análise de redes, permite mapear com mais rigor e de maneira mais fina as relações entre os movimentos sociais”, diz Marisa von Bülow, professora do Instituto de Ciência Política da Universidade de Brasília (UnB), especializada no estudo das sociedades civis latino-americanas. “A análise de redes não é necessariamente o melhor método, mas complementa muito bem métodos como as pesquisas qualitativas e de campo, as entrevistas etc. Permite que se vejam coisas que não poderiam ser lidas com tanta clareza pelas vias tradicionais. No caso das pesquisas de Gurza Lavalle, acabaram mostrando que as sociedades civis da região são mais diversas e plurais do que se pensava.”

“As análises que tínhamos eram geralmente leituras impressionistas ou dados sem capacidade de produzir inferências”, diz Gurza Lavalle. Ele tirou da literatura local a evolução dos atores sociais na região, que identifica duas ondas distintas de inovação na mobilização social: tomando como plano de comparação as organizações tradicionais como as entidades assistenciais ou as associações de bairro, a nova onda de atores surgida nos anos 1960, 1970 e metade dos 1980, e a novíssima onda de atores que ganhou força nos anos 1990.

A primeira se caracterizou pelas organizações criadas em razão de demandas sociais de segmentos amplos da população durante a vigência do regime militar. É o caso das pastorais incentivadas pela Igreja Católica e os movimentos por moradia, pela saúde e contra a carestia. As organizações da segunda onda costumam ser agrupadas na denominação de ONGs, que por sua vez deram origem às entidades articuladoras, aquelas que trabalham para outras organizações, e não para indivíduos, segmentos da população ou movimentos localizados – por exemplo, a Associação Brasileira de Organizações Não Governamentais (Abong) ou a Rede Brasileira Agroflorestal (Rebraf).

A análise de redes, segundo Gurza Lavalle, permitiu avaliar a influência das associações, “tanto no seio da sociedade civil quanto em relação a outros atores sociais e políticos”. Esse resultado foi obtido por um conjunto de medidas de centralidade que computam os vínculos no interior da rede, não só aqueles diretos ou de vizinhança, mas, sobretudo, aqueles indiretos ou entre uma organização e os vínculos de outra organização com a qual a primeira interage e aos quais não tem acesso direto. “Quando nos relacionamos, estamos vinculados de forma indireta aos vínculos dos outros”, diz o pesquisador.

© NARA ISODA

A análise de redes, de acordo com o cientista político, registrou desenvolvimento acelerado nas últimas duas décadas e é aplicável a diversas áreas do conhecimento. “Graças aos avanços da análise de redes é possível, por exemplo, detectar padrões de difusão de doenças, pois permite identificar estruturas indiretas que não estão à disposição dos indivíduos, mas atuam num quadro maior. É um caminho para superar as caracterizações extremamente abstratas e estilizadas dos atores comuns nas ciências sociais, mas sem abrir mão da generalização de resultados.” Segundo Gurza Lavalle, uma das principais vantagens desse método é complementar e ir além dos estudos de caso e controlar as declarações das próprias organizações estudadas (autodescrição) e investigar as posições objetivas dos atores dentro das redes, bem como as estruturas de vínculos que condensam e condicionam as lógicas de sua atuação.

O método de amostragem adotado para apurar a estrutura de vínculos entre as organizações é conhecido como bola de neve. Cada entidade foi chamada a citar cinco outras organizações importantes no andamento do trabalho da entidade entrevistada. Na cidade de São Paulo foram ouvidos representantes de 202 associações civis, que geraram um total de 827 atores diferentes, 1.368 vínculos e 549.081 relações potenciais. Essa rede permitiu identificar claramente a vitalidade dos movimentos sociais, semelhante à das ONGs. Além disso, o estudo detectou quatro tendências da ecologia organizacional da sociedade civil em São Paulo e, em menor grau, na Cidade do México: ampliação, modernização, diversificação e, em alguns casos, especialização funcional (capacidade de desenvolver funções complementares com outras organizações).

O que o pesquisador utiliza como aproximação aos “movimentos sociais” são organizações populares, “entidades cuja estratégia de atuação distintiva é a mobilização popular”, como o Movimento de Moradia do Centro, a Unificação de Lutas de Cortiços e, numa escala bem maior, o Movimento dos Sem-Terra. Estas, na rede, estão em pé de igualdade com as ONGs e as articuladoras. Numa posição de “centralidade intermediária” estão as pastorais, os fóruns e as associações assistenciais. Finalmente, em condição periférica, estão organizações de corte tradicional, como as associações de bairro e comunitárias.

“As organizações civis passaram a desempenhar novas funções de intermediação, ora em instituições participativas como representantes de determinados grupos, ora gerindo uma parte da política, ora como receptoras de recursos públicos para a execução de projetos”, diz Gurza Lavalle. “As redes de organizações civis examinadas são produto de bolas de neve iniciadas em áreas populares da cidade e por isso nos informam a respeito da capacidade de intermediação das organizações civis em relação a esses grupos sociais.”

Outros estudos confirmam as conclusões do trabalho conduzido por Gurza Lavalle, como os de Lígia Lüchmann, professora do Departamento de Sociologia e Ciência Política da Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, que vem estudando as organizações civis de Florianópolis. “Eu confirmaria a ideia de que a sociedade civil é hoje funcionalmente mais diversificada do que costumava ser, com atores tradicionais coexistindo com os novos”, diz. Ela cita, na capital catarinense, a atuação de articuladoras como a União Florianopolitana de Entidades Comunitárias e o Fórum de Políticas Públicas.

No cenário latino-americano, Gurza Lavalle e Marisa von Büllow veem o Brasil como um caso excepcional de articulação das organizações sociais ao conseguir acesso ao poder público, o que não ocorre no México. Gurza Lavalle cita como exemplos os casos do Estatuto da Cidade, que teve origem no Fórum Nacional da Reforma Urbana, e do ativismo feminista no interior do Movimento Negro, cuja história é um componente imprescindível da configuração do campo da saúde para a população negra dentro da política nacional de saúde, embora sejam mais conhecidos os casos do movimento pela reforma da saúde ou do ativismo de organizações civis na definição das diretrizes das políticas para HIV/Aids.

Projeto
Centro de Estudos da Metrópole – CEM (nº 2013/07616-7); Modalidade Centros de Pesquisa, Inovação e Difusão (Cepid); Pesquisadora responsável Martha Teresa da Silva Arretche; Investimento R$ 7.103.665,40 para todo o Cepid (FAPESP).

Artigo científico
GURZA LAVALLE, A. e Bueno, N. S. Waves of change within civil society in Latin America: Mexico City and Sao PauloPolitics & Society. v. 39, p. 415-50, 2011.

Global Networks Must Be Redesigned, Experts Urge (Science Daily)

May 1, 2013 — Our global networks have generated many benefits and new opportunities. However, they have also established highways for failure propagation, which can ultimately result in human-made disasters. For example, today’s quick spreading of emerging epidemics is largely a result of global air traffic, with serious impacts on global health, social welfare, and economic systems.

Our global networks have generated many benefits and new opportunities. However, they have also established highways for failure propagation, which can ultimately result in human-made disasters. For example, today’s quick spreading of emerging epidemics is largely a result of global air traffic, with serious impacts on global health, social welfare, and economic systems. (Credit: © Angie Lingnau / Fotolia)

Helbing’s publication illustrates how cascade effects and complex dynamics amplify the vulnerability of networked systems. For example, just a few long-distance connections can largely decrease our ability to mitigate the threats posed by global pandemics. Initially beneficial trends, such as globalization, increasing network densities, higher complexity, and an acceleration of institutional decision processes may ultimately push human-made or human-influenced systems towards systemic instability, Helbing finds. Systemic instability refers to a system, which will get out of control sooner or later, even if everybody involved is well skilled, highly motivated and behaving properly. Crowd disasters are shocking examples illustrating that many deaths may occur even when everybody tries hard not to hurt anyone.

Our Intuition of Systemic Risks Is Misleading

Networking system components that are well-behaved in separation may create counter-intuitive emergent system behaviors, which are not well-behaved at all. For example, cooperative behavior might unexpectedly break down as the connectivity of interaction partners grows. “Applying this to the global network of banks, this might actually have caused the financial meltdown in 2008,” believes Helbing.

Globally networked risks are difficult to identify, map and understand, since there are often no evident, unique cause-effect relationships. Failure rates may change depending on the random path taken by the system, with the consequence of increasing risks as cascade failures progress, thereby decreasing the capacity of the system to recover. “In certain cases, cascade effects might reach any size, and the damage might be practically unbounded,” says Helbing. “This is quite disturbing and hard to imagine.” All of these features make strongly coupled, complex systems difficult to predict and control, such that our attempts to manage them go astray.

“Take the financial system,” says Helbing. “The financial crisis hit regulators by surprise.” But back in 2003, the legendary investor Warren Buffet warned of mega-catastrophic risks created by large-scale investments into financial derivatives. It took 5 years until the “investment time bomb” exploded, causing losses of trillions of dollars to our economy. “The financial architecture is not properly designed,” concludes Helbing. “The system lacks breaking points, as we have them in our electrical system.” This allows local problems to spread globally, thereby reaching catastrophic dimensions.

A Global Ticking Time Bomb?

Have we unintentionally created a global time bomb? If so, what kinds of global catastrophic scenarios might humans face in complex societies? A collapse of the world economy or of our information and communication systems? Global pandemics? Unsustainable growth or environmental change? A global food or energy crisis? A cultural clash or global-scale conflict? Or will we face a combination of these contagious phenomena — a scenario that the World Economic Forum calls the “perfect storm”?

“While analyzing such global risks,” says Helbing, “one must bear in mind that the propagation speed of destructive cascade effects might be slow, but nevertheless hard to stop. It is time to recognize that crowd disasters, conflicts, revolutions, wars, and financial crises are the undesired result of operating socio-economic systems in the wrong parameter range, where systems are unstable.” In the past, these social problems seemed to be puzzling, unrelated, and almost “God-given” phenomena one had to live with. Nowadays, thanks to new complexity science models and large-scale data sets (“Big Data”), one can analyze and understand the underlying mechanisms, which let complex systems get out of control.

Disasters should not be considered “bad luck.” They are a result of inappropriate interactions and institutional settings, caused by humans. Even worse, they are often the consequence of a flawed understanding of counter-intuitive system behaviors. “For example, it is surprising that we didn’t have sufficient precautions against a financial crisis and well-elaborated contingency plans,” states Helbing. “Perhaps, this is because there should not be any bubbles and crashes according to the predominant theoretical paradigm of efficient markets.” Conventional thinking can cause fateful decisions and the repetition of previous mistakes. “In other words: While we want to do the right thing, we often do wrong things,” concludes Helbing. This obviously calls for a paradigm shift in our thinking. “For example, we may try to promote innovation, but suffer economic decline, because innovation requires diversity more than homogenization.”

Global Networks Must Be Re-Designed

Helbing’s publication explores why today’s risk analysis falls short. “Predictability and controllability are design issues,” stresses Helbing. “And uncertainty, which means the impossibility to determine the likelihood and expected size of damage, is often man-made.” Many systems could be better managed with real-time data. These would allow one to avoid delayed response and to enhance the transparency, understanding, and adaptive control of systems. However, even all the data in the world cannot compensate for ill-designed systems such as the current financial system. Such systems will sooner or later get out of control, causing catastrophic human-made failure. Therefore, a re-design of such systems is urgently needed.

Helbing’s Nature paper on “Globally Networked Risks” also calls attention to strategies that make systems more resilient, i.e. able to recover from shocks. For example, setting up backup systems (e.g. a parallel financial system), limiting the system size and connectivity, building in breaking points to stop cascade effects, or reducing complexity may be used to improve resilience. In the case of financial systems, there is still much work to be done to fully incorporate these principles.

Contemporary information and communication technologies (ICT) are also far from being failure-proof. They are based on principles that are 30 or more years old and not designed for today’s use. The explosion of cyber risks is a logical consequence. This includes threats to individuals (such as privacy intrusion, identity theft, or manipulation through personalized information), to companies (such as cybercrime), and to societies (such as cyberwar or totalitarian control). To counter this, Helbing recommends an entirely new ICT architecture inspired by principles of decentralized self-organization as observed in immune systems, ecology, and social systems.

Coming Era of Social Innovation

A better understanding of the success principles of societies is urgently needed. “For example, when systems become too complex, they cannot be effectively managed top-down” explains Helbing. “Guided self-organization is a promising alternative to manage complex dynamical systems bottom-up, in a decentralized way.” The underlying idea is to exploit, rather than fight, the inherent tendency of complex systems to self-organize and thereby create a robust, ordered state. For this, it is important to have the right kinds of interactions, adaptive feedback mechanisms, and institutional settings, i.e. to establish proper “rules of the game.” The paper offers the example of an intriguing “self-control” principle, where traffic lights are controlled bottom-up by the vehicle flows rather than top-down by a traffic center.

Creating and Protecting Social Capital

“One man’s disaster is another man’s opportunity. Therefore, many problems can only be successfully addressed with transparency, accountability, awareness, and collective responsibility,” underlines Helbing. Moreover, social capital such as cooperativeness or trust is important for economic value generation, social well-being and societal resilience, but it may be damaged or exploited. “Humans must learn how to quantify and protect social capital. A warning example is the loss of trillions of dollars in the stock markets during the financial crisis.” This crisis was largely caused by a loss of trust. “It is important to stress that risk insurances today do not consider damage to social capital,” Helbing continues. However, it is known that large-scale disasters have a disproportionate public impact, in part because they destroy social capital. As we neglect social capital in risk assessments, we are taking excessive risks.

Journal Reference:

  1. Dirk Helbing. Globally networked risks and how to respondNature, 2013; 497 (7447): 51 DOI:10.1038/nature12047

Revealed – the capitalist network that runs the world (New Scientist)

19 October 2011 by Andy Coghlan and Debora MacKenzie

The 1318 transnational corporations that form the core of the economy. Superconnected companies are red, very connected companies are yellow. The size of the dot represents revenue (Image: PLoS One)

AS PROTESTS against financial power sweep the world this week, science may have confirmed the protesters’ worst fears. An analysis of the relationships between 43,000 transnational corporations has identified a relatively small group of companies, mainly banks, with disproportionate power over the global economy.

The study’s assumptions have attracted some criticism, but complex systems analysts contacted by New Scientist say it is a unique effort to untangle control in the global economy. Pushing the analysis further, they say, could help to identify ways of making global capitalism more stable.

The idea that a few bankers control a large chunk of the global economy might not seem like news to New York’s Occupy Wall Street movement and protesters elsewhere (see photo). But the study, by a trio of complex systems theorists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, is the first to go beyond ideology to empirically identify such a network of power. It combines the mathematics long used to model natural systems with comprehensive corporate data to map ownership among the world’s transnational corporations (TNCs).

“Reality is so complex, we must move away from dogma, whether it’s conspiracy theories or free-market,” says James Glattfelder. “Our analysis is reality-based.”

Previous studies have found that a few TNCs own large chunks of the world’s economy, but they included only a limited number of companies and omitted indirect ownerships, so could not say how this affected the global economy – whether it made it more or less stable, for instance.

The Zurich team can. From Orbis 2007, a database listing 37 million companies and investors worldwide, they pulled out all 43,060 TNCs and the share ownerships linking them. Then they constructed a model of which companies controlled others through shareholding networks, coupled with each company’s operating revenues, to map the structure of economic power.

The work, to be published in PloS One, revealed a core of 1318 companies with interlocking ownerships (see image). Each of the 1318 had ties to two or more other companies, and on average they were connected to 20. What’s more, although they represented 20 per cent of global operating revenues, the 1318 appeared to collectively own through their shares the majority of the world’s large blue chip and manufacturing firms – the “real” economy – representing a further 60 per cent of global revenues.

When the team further untangled the web of ownership, it found much of it tracked back to a “super-entity” of 147 even more tightly knit companies – all of their ownership was held by other members of the super-entity – that controlled 40 per cent of the total wealth in the network. “In effect, less than 1 per cent of the companies were able to control 40 per cent of the entire network,” says Glattfelder. Most were financial institutions. The top 20 included Barclays Bank, JPMorgan Chase & Co, and The Goldman Sachs Group.

John Driffill of the University of London, a macroeconomics expert, says the value of the analysis is not just to see if a small number of people controls the global economy, but rather its insights into economic stability.

Concentration of power is not good or bad in itself, says the Zurich team, but the core’s tight interconnections could be. As the world learned in 2008, such networks are unstable. “If one [company] suffers distress,” says Glattfelder, “this propagates.”

“It’s disconcerting to see how connected things really are,” agrees George Sugihara of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, a complex systems expert who has advised Deutsche Bank.

Yaneer Bar-Yam, head of the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI), warns that the analysis assumes ownership equates to control, which is not always true. Most company shares are held by fund managers who may or may not control what the companies they part-own actually do. The impact of this on the system’s behaviour, he says, requires more analysis.

Crucially, by identifying the architecture of global economic power, the analysis could help make it more stable. By finding the vulnerable aspects of the system, economists can suggest measures to prevent future collapses spreading through the entire economy. Glattfelder says we may need global anti-trust rules, which now exist only at national level, to limit over-connection among TNCs. Bar-Yam says the analysis suggests one possible solution: firms should be taxed for excess interconnectivity to discourage this risk.

One thing won’t chime with some of the protesters’ claims: the super-entity is unlikely to be the intentional result of a conspiracy to rule the world. “Such structures are common in nature,” says Sugihara.

Newcomers to any network connect preferentially to highly connected members. TNCs buy shares in each other for business reasons, not for world domination. If connectedness clusters, so does wealth, says Dan Braha of NECSI: in similar models, money flows towards the most highly connected members. The Zurich study, says Sugihara, “is strong evidence that simple rules governing TNCs give rise spontaneously to highly connected groups”. Or as Braha puts it: “The Occupy Wall Street claim that 1 per cent of people have most of the wealth reflects a logical phase of the self-organising economy.”

So, the super-entity may not result from conspiracy. The real question, says the Zurich team, is whether it can exert concerted political power. Driffill feels 147 is too many to sustain collusion. Braha suspects they will compete in the market but act together on common interests. Resisting changes to the network structure may be one such common interest.

The top 50 of the 147 superconnected companies

1. Barclays plc
2. Capital Group Companies Inc
3. FMR Corporation
4. AXA
5. State Street Corporation
6. JP Morgan Chase & Co
7. Legal & General Group plc
8. Vanguard Group Inc
9. UBS AG
10. Merrill Lynch & Co Inc
11. Wellington Management Co LLP
12. Deutsche Bank AG
13. Franklin Resources Inc
14. Credit Suisse Group
15. Walton Enterprises LLC
16. Bank of New York Mellon Corp
17. Natixis
18. Goldman Sachs Group Inc
19. T Rowe Price Group Inc
20. Legg Mason Inc
21. Morgan Stanley
22. Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc
23. Northern Trust Corporation
24. Société Générale
25. Bank of America Corporation
26. Lloyds TSB Group plc
27. Invesco plc
28. Allianz SE 29. TIAA
30. Old Mutual Public Limited Company
31. Aviva plc
32. Schroders plc
33. Dodge & Cox
34. Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc*
35. Sun Life Financial Inc
36. Standard Life plc
37. CNCE
38. Nomura Holdings Inc
39. The Depository Trust Company
40. Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance
41. ING Groep NV
42. Brandes Investment Partners LP
43. Unicredito Italiano SPA
44. Deposit Insurance Corporation of Japan
45. Vereniging Aegon
46. BNP Paribas
47. Affiliated Managers Group Inc
48. Resona Holdings Inc
49. Capital Group International Inc
50. China Petrochemical Group Company

* Lehman still existed in the 2007 dataset used

Graphic: The 1318 transnational corporations that form the core of the economy

(Data: PLoS One)