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Social Physics

Big Data can "unlock the mysteries of the universe" not unlike the way microscopes get at "the laws of the physical world," reports The Economist in a review of Social Physics by MIT professor Alex Pentland (2/8/14). Alex (his friends call him Sandy) terms this concept ‘social physics’ which "he asserts, lets people ‘tune’ social networks and obtain results they want, just as radio engineers can tune a receiver to a desired frequency. This allows certain aspects of human life – from how companies operate to how cities work – to be ‘re-engineered’ to make them more efficient."

Sandy has conducted various experiments that support this concept. In one test, he found that he could improve "the performance of a group of currency traders" by calibrating the information they received. First he determined that traders who either "were isolated from others or over-connected did worse than those who struck a balance … By using subtle incentives to get the loners to interact more and the social butterflies to reduce their information intake, he was able to double the profitability of the group."

In another trial, he used mobile-phone data "to track where commuters began and ended their journeys on public transit" and used the information to show how a "minor tweak to the system" could reduce travel times by 10%. Other studies "underscore the importance of social ties," such as one that found that people "were more likely to use energy-saving schemes" if "gift points" were awarded to their neighbors, rather than to themselves. This suggests that "economic and political systems, based on individual action and rational choice, overlook the influence of social ties."