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New Research Center Devoted to the Study of Social and Cognitive Networks

Published on October 23, 2009 at 5:56 PM

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.

"Rensselaer offers a unique research environment to lead this important new network science center," said Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson. "We have assembled an outstanding team of researchers, and built powerful new research platforms. The team will work with one of the largest academic supercomputing centers in the world – the Rensselaer Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations – and the leading visualization and simulation capabilities within our new Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center. The Center for Social and Cognitive Networks will bring together our world-class scientists in the areas of computer science, cognitive science, physics, Web science, and mathematics in an unprecedented collaboration to investigate all aspects of the ever-changing and global social climate of today."

"A unique feature of this center will be its interdisciplinary approach," said Rensselaer Provost Robert Palazzo. "It has been a pleasure to work with Professor Szymanski and the faculty in drawing upon the strengths of the Rensselaer academic disciplines that will contribute to building knowledge in this important emerging field. The center will capitalize on the platforms President Jackson has put in place to support new levels of interdisciplinary research."

"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.

The center will enable stronger and more closely integrated collaborations among the team of top interdisciplinary researchers in the emerging field of network science that already existed informally, according to Szymanski.

"I explored those earlier links and collaboration when organizing the team for the center," he said. "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 Adali Sibel; 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.

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