Developments in social networking spur from NS CTA alliance

March 20, 2012

Story Highlights

  • Network Science Collaborative Technology Alliance may untangle entire webs of networks.
  • NS CTA has four academic research centers.
  • Findings from SCNARC were shared at the World Economic Forum in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland.

Army leaders are maneuvering networks that entangle operational units not only with battlefield guidance, but also with unconventional research findings.

Network science experts from government, and a consortium of research centers funded with a $33 million investment from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL), explore social, communication and information concerns at the Network Science Collaborative Technology Alliance (NS CTA) that may untangle entire webs of networks.

The NS CTA has four academic research centers (ARCs), one focused on social/cognitive networks (SCNARC), an ARC focused on information networks (INARCs), an ARC focused on communications networks (CNARCs), and an interdisciplinary research center (IRC) focused on interdisciplinary research and technology transition.

Two highly regarded SCNARC researchers in their third year of the five-year NS CTA program shared findings from their work at the World Economic Forum in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland held in January, 2012.

SCNARC Director Boleslaw Szymanski, the Claire and Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., spoke about how the opinions of a small number of committed people can lead to the entire group adopting the opinion.

"If you can get at least 10 percent of the group to share your opinion, research shows that you can influence the entire group," he said. "When the number of committed opinion holders is less, they do not contribute to the spread of ideas."

Hence, 10 percent is a tipping point for the spread of opinions. When two minority groups have opposing positions, the difference in their number influences the dynamics. But the spread still happens at the single tipping point, which would be defined by the sizes of both minorities, Szymanski said.

The focus of gaining the approval of a few rather than targeting the masses with leaflets and radio broadcasts seemed novel in Afghanistan just a few short years ago.

"The greatest risk we can accept is to lose the support of the people here," said Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then top commander in Afghanistan, during a 2009 interview on CBS's "60 Minutes." "If the people are against us, we cannot be successful."

If host nation locals are suspicious of government, the cultural difference may mean tribal leaders are more effectively engaged than political ones, Szymanski said.

Although the idea of "winning the hearts and minds of the people" has been around in some form since the Vietnam War, what changed is the way people communicate with one another, the way people can access information, and the ability to keep extensive records on many aspects of that communication.

"Connectivity that came about as a result of technological advances has changed the way we spread information and collect data about it," Szymanski said. "This is where the science starts — with the ability to measurecollect data."

It seems counterintuitive to spend time convincing people through deep personal contacts when you save so much time telling them all at once, but the difference is if you can strongly convince a small number, you can influence the entire network, Szymanski said.

A potential Army use of the research is anticipation and prevention of misunderstandings, said Dr. Alexander Kott, division chief, Network Science Division, ARL. The data could also be used to "gain an understanding of when and under what conditions the population will be more inclined to support insurgent or coalition forces."

Another idea incubated at the academic research center, focused on social/cognitive networks and presented at the World Economic Forum is network controllability.

Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, a physicist at Northeastern University, best known for his research of mapping networks, works at the academic research center with Szymanski, and spoke at Davos about the controllability aspect of network behaviors.

"If we understand the nodes that control opinions, we can interpret the data, then intervene," Barabasi said.

"Why would you want to have a network and not control it?" Barabasi said. "Whether it is the Internet, a power grid, or an organization with a CEO at the helm, someone has control."

For instance, a commander of a military operation may hear contradicting reports of which networks on the ground are friendly and which ones are not. It may be difficult to discern who to trust, but if you put that information into the context of network science, commanders can more readily discern who to trust, Barabasi said.

Network dynamics should not be something each incoming commander has to figure out, he said.

"If we don't understand these kind of network dynamics, we will make mistakes in theater that adversaries can and will use against us," Szymanski said.

The NS CTA partners, which includes researchers at ARL and the Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center, work very closely together on the interactions within, and more importantly, between social/cognitive, information and communication networks, Kott said.

Research and collaboration with experts is vital as the Army seeks theory, models and tools to answer a number of questions about how social and cognitive interactions work, he said.


Last Update / Reviewed: March 20, 2012