Networks

by Mark Buchanan, Author of „Small Worlds“

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Modern research in cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence tells us that intelligence is both “embodied” and “embedded”. What does this mean?

For individuals, businesses or governments today, the environment is increasingly the “networked” environment. The vast technological reach of the Internet has revolutionized everything from international banking and business management to library science and air traffic control. It has vastly improved the efficiency of information flows of all kinds. Like all developments in our world, however, from genetic engineering to nuclear energy, networks present both opportunities and risks. We still seem powerless to prevent serious network inefficiency – today more than 68% of global email is wasted “spam”. Likewise, while air travel enhances business efficiency and brings disparate cultures together, it also projects public health problems across the globe: witness the worldwide repercussions of the SARS epidemic, and the looming threat of Avian flu.

Executives and scholars of business management recognize that conventional theories of management, forged in the era of industrialization, vertically integrated companies, and relatively impermeable institutional borders, can no longer cope with the immensely complex organizations that have emerged during two decades of rising globalization and decentralization. With the global economy now far more integrated than it has ever been, chains of economic cause and effect reach across the world with disconcerting speed, exposing individuals, firms, and governments to a new kind of “interdependence risk” — to the possibility that events quite far away can undermine the activities on which their security and prosperity depend. To take one example, in 2002, a labor slowdown at ports on the West Coast cost U.S. businesses up to $1 billion per day for several weeks, bringing into sharp relief their dependence on facilities they do not themselves control.

But networks exist, of course, because they offer opportunities. Five-hundred million years ago, the single-celled organisms that then inhabited the Earth began a vast experiment in networking, forming into alliances of more capable and sophisticated multi-cellular organisms and creating an evolving line of living technology of which we are the most recent products. Evolution has managed to exploit the benefits of networks, while avoiding – or at least learning to cope – with the inherent risks. Nowadays, we are involved in a similar experiment and to succeed we will need to do the same. To do so, we will require a deep science of networks – a science that is today only in its infancy.

In the abstract, a network is simply a web of linked objects – people, computers, bacteria, businesses, or what have you. What makes networks so efficient? Obviously, connections allow the bringing together of complementary resources and skills and thereby the achievement of tasks that would otherwise be impossible. The linking together of resources also allows sharing of loads and the division of labour, as illustrated by the historical development of the electrical grid. In the early 20th century, when electrical appliances were still relatively exotic, and electrical lighting was the technological marvel of the day, power stations located in towns or cities burned fuel or harnessed hydroelectric energy and delivered it through short transmission lines to local businesses and residents. Power was both produced and consumed locally. With time, of course, these local networks extended their reach to the countryside, carrying power for electric lights, to run machinery and so on. Today, power is till produced locally, but consumed globally.

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Widespread distribution does more than make power available to more people. It makes power generation more efficient. Suppose it is summertime in the U.S., and a local heat wave is hovering over the East coast. Momentarily, demand for electrical power in this region will soar, as people use their air conditioners and fans. But all this power need not be produced on the East coast. The electrical grid network can instead divert electricity from other regions, directing it to where it is needed most. A week later, if weather conditions and electricity demands change, the network can just as easily send power elsewhere. In the absence of network sharing, power generators in each region would have to be able to supply the local peak demand. By linking together the electrical supply networks for different geographical regions, electrical generators can share the burden.

This is the secret of networks – improved flexibility and adaptability, as resources can flow toward points of greatest need. This is why the Internet, a global network of interlinked computers, is so remarkably dependable. Engineers estimate that at any one time, a few percent of all Internet computers are not working, either offline for maintenance, or having crashed for some reason. But we rarely if ever notice this when sending emails, as the network has been designed to automatically re-route messages around problems spots. This is also why the World Wide Web is such a powerful information resource. A physicist in Rome can access and in seconds run a calculation on a supercomputer located at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the New Mexico Desert. Information and resources flow to where they can be used. The remarkable SETI project, scanning the heavens in a search for signs of other life within our Universe, has exploited this network resource very cleverly. The project’s organizers have literally enlisted millions of individual computers from all over the world to participate in analyzing data, searching for hidden signals. Again, computational resources – in apparently idling computers across the planet – are put to work by virtue of the network.

The benefits of linking things together may be somewhat obvious, but the real power of networks to improve efficiency only comes into view with a slightly more detailed examination. Three decades ago, sociologists noted that most people find new jobs – or other kinds of precious information – not by contact with those they know well or see frequently, but through those with whom they have only “weak ties” – more distant acquaintances or contacts. Paradoxically, these people offer bridges to other worlds of information or capabilities that are not normally our own. Indeed, no matter who you are, most knowledge and capability rests in the hands and heads of others, known to you perhaps, but most likely not.

What is most surprising is how these weak links make real-world networks of all kinds, from social and business networks to the Internet and World Wide Web, surprisingly small, and make all those “unknown” resources only a few steps away. Although there are over ten billion pages on the World Wide Web, it generally takes only about 20 clicks to navigate from one page to another. Studies of social networks, food webs, the physical Internet, cellular protein-protein interactions networks and networks of many other kinds reveal a similar character – going from any one element to another requires only a handful of steps, even in networks comprised of an enormous number of elements. This is why networks offer so much potential. We used to think of intelligence as something inherent to a mind or organism, some special quality of its organization and function, which could be described and understood in the abstract and in isolation. Now we see that human intelligence and the intelligence of other organisms actually depends crucially on ongoing interactions between mind and body and between the organism itself and its environment. Intelligence is less a property of an organism per se, than a quality of the relationship between an organism and its environment.

In pinning down some quantitative measures of real-world networks, the science of networks has at least begun to establish a conceptual language for describing and comparing complex networks in a meaningful way. Many fundamental questions demand answers. What accounts for the emergence of similarly structured networks in so many distinct settings, where one might expect different factors to be at work? What is the link between the specific architecture of a network and its stability and efficiency? How does network architecture influence the dynamics of processes taking place within that network?

What increasingly stands out about today’s world is its immense complexity – its irregularity and apparent unpredictability, its dense webs of cause and effect that defy straightforward analysis. Nothing in traditional science and engineering has prepared us to manage such systems, and our intuition offers little or no guidance: we need new ideas, new metaphors and new methods. Network intelligence is the ability of an individual within a network to navigate and tap into the extended ecosystem of resources, while avoiding the hazards. Our future demands that we develop such intelligence.