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Rensselaer To Lead Multimillion-Dollar Research Center for Social and Cognitive Networks


With $16.75 million in funding from the Army Research Laboratory (ARL), Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute will launch a new interdisciplinary research center devoted to the study of social and cognitive networks.

The Center for Social and Cognitive Networks is part of the newly created Collaborative Technology Alliance (CTA) of the ARL, which includes a total of four nationwide centers focused on different aspects of the emerging field of network science.

The Rensselaer center will be headed by Boleslaw Szymanski, Rensselaer's Claire & Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor of Computer Science. Rensselaer will receive $8.6 million of the $16.75 million in total funding to lead the new center for its first five years. An additional $18.75 million is anticipated from the ARL for a second phase, which would bring the total funding for the interdisciplinary center to $35.5 million over 10 years.

Rensselaer will be joined by corporate and academic partners from IBM Corp., Northeastern University, and the City University of New York, and collaborators from Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New York University, Northwestern University, the University of Notre Dame, the University of Maryland, and Indiana University.

"Together with other centers of the CTA, we are creating the new discipline of network science," said Szymanski. "The centers will be in the leading position to define this new discipline in all its complexity. Rensselaer researchers are very pleased to be a leading part of this transformation."

The Center for Social and Cognitive Networks will link together top social scientists, neuroscientists, and cognitive scientists with leading physicists, computer scientists, mathematicians, and engineers in the search to uncover, model, understand, and foresee the complex social interactions that take place in today's society. All aspects of social networks, from the origins of adversarial networks to gauging the level of trust within vast social networks, will be investigated within the center.

"I explored those earlier links and collaboration when organizing the team for the center," said Szymanski. "The impact of our work will be far-reaching. We are in an entirely new world where Twitter, cell phones, and wireless communication change the way we interact with each other. Together and with the support of the ARL, the researchers in the center will be able to investigate how technology enhances social interactions and how those technologies and relationships can be used to better measure and understand people's interactions with each other."

Several Rensselaer faculty will take part in the center research. Szymanski will be leading the interdisciplinary team that includes Senior Professor of the Tetherless World Research Constellation and head of Information Technology James Hendler; Professor of Cognitive Science and Acting Head of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences Wayne Gray; Associate Professor of Computer Science Sibel Adali ; Associate Professor of Computer Science Malik Magdon-Ismail; Professor of Computer Science Mark Goldberg; Professor of Mathematical Sciences Chjan Lim; Professor of Decision Sciences & Engineering Systems William Wallace; Associate Professor of Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy Gyorgy Korniss; and Research Associate Professor of Cognitive Science Michael Schoelles.

The center will study the fundamentals of social and cognitive networks and their roles in today's society and organizations, including the U.S. Army. The goal will be to gain a deeper understanding of these networks and build a firm scientific basis in the field of network science. The work will include research on large social networks, with a focus on networks with mobile agents. An example of a mobile agent is someone who is interacting (e.g., communicating, observing, helping, distracting, interrupting, etc.) with others while moving around the environment. The U.S. Army and the societies within which it operates are primary examples of such networks, according to Szymanski.

Five topics will be the focus of the center's research. One will be dynamic processes in networks. Today's modern societies are supported by organically evolving network structures, which contribute to the transport and storage of various entities, including materials, energy, information, and people across vast time and space. At the same time, technological advances provide tools to better monitor social interactions and also influence social networks by providing novel ways for humans to interact, Szymanski said. With this in mind, the researchers will work to understand both the human interactions and the underlying technological infrastructure they utilize. To do this, the researchers will combine theoretical and computational tools from the disciplines of sociology, political science, computer science, mathematics, and physics.

A second area will study organizational networks and how knowledge, particularly in the Army, is spread from peer to peer in the modern military. Researchers will search for digital traces of collaboration and communication within an organization at all levels to understand how information flows.

The third focus area will be the study of adversary networks. This research has important implications for the Army in dealing with terrorists and other hidden groups within a society, according to Szymanski. The research will seek ways to monitor the activities of adversary networks, to map the composition and hierarchy of the network, and to understand their dynamics and evolution over time. The work will bring together expertise ranging from computer science to game theory.

"Adversary networks can be discovered very early in their development by careful social network analysis," Szymanski said. "Studying the technologies they use and how they use them will allow us to act well before the adversary network has reached maturity. This will greatly minimize their impact within their society as well as our own."

A fourth focus examines trust in social networks. The researchers will seek to measure the level of trust within a network and understand how the impacts of trust move information through a network. For example, researchers will use mathematical and computational modeling to understand how different types of social interactions impact an individual's thoughts and behaviors. This work will also rely heavily on collaborations with computer scientists that will model and compute how actors in a social network build trust and use that trust to spread information.

Finally, the center will look at the impacts of human error in social networks. This research will utilize computational systems that predict how human error or bias will influence their judgment.

"As the diversification of nations and societies progresses, understanding of social and cognitive networks and their impacts on people's behavior and operation will become increasingly important," Szymanski said. "These networks impact the Army in all aspects of its operations, from internal cohesiveness to their ability to perform complex missions in increasingly complex international social environments. Equally important is that these networks impact our society in a very similar way, as the complexity of social interactions grows and the influence of other societies on our lives increases."


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