I frequently wonder how future historians, psychologists and sociologists will explain this particular time and place in which we live. Will they throw up their hands and say, "Man, those people were nuts," or will they develop a more nuanced explanation for the seemingly inexplicable chaos we seem to have created?

Time will tell. In the here and now, however, the cutting-edge field of collective computation may provide some mathematical ways of understanding the decisions we make as a society.

For evolutionary biologist Jessica Flack, understanding "the computation process that orders things we see in the world" has been a lifelong interest. An evolutionary biologist, Flack describes traditional evolutionary biology as "very unsatisfying … in evolutionary biology, most of the focus is on selection, the negative and positive consequences of behavior and [there is] less attention on how institutions or social structures are built."

Her work, instead, draws on physics, computer science, cognitive science and other branches to study and understand the rules governing collective behavior in nature, and how nature solves problems. Flack is a professor at the Santa Fe Institute and runs its Collective Computation Group, whose members work and write on the pressing questions in the field. She will deliver a lecture on the topic to the public on Oct. 22 at the Lensic, focusing on why it's needed to understand systems in which subjectivity and error take place. In other words, she says, "How do we get lawlike behavior when there's subjectivity?"

For example, she says, consider information that is relatively straightforward, like the height of the Eiffel Tower. Determining its height is simple "because we have measurement devices we all agree work and we can make estimates … and determine if the estimates are correct." But in other situations, "there are kinds of things we might want to estimate, like who is going to be elected president, where there is no clear ground truth like in the Eiffel Tower case; it's a much more of a complicated process."

That's for sure.

Flack hasn't specifically worked on collective computation for presidential elections, but her research has included "voting in animal societies," specifically pig-tailed macaques. These monkeys fight a lot over the course of their lives, and their fighting abilities are determined by a variety of factors, such as size, experience and their backup crew (I'm paraphrasing; Flack did not use the term "backup crew."). Their fighting abilities, Flack says, don't display through a "visible characteristic" but, rather, are only demonstrated through fighting. When one monkey learns over time that it will lose to another, it sends a subordination signal, effectively ending the need to fight.

All of the monkeys end up sending signals to one another, and those signals create a network of information. The monkeys use that network to make decisions about how to interact with one another. "Encoded in this network is a collective perspective of the degree to which any individual can have social power to win a fight," she says. The collective opinion ends up, then, playing a role in creating the ground truth that governs the system."

Santa Fe Institute Professor Jessica Flack’s work draws on physics, computer science, cognitive science and other branches.
Santa Fe Institute Professor Jessica Flack’s work draws on physics, computer science, cognitive science and other branches. | Courtesy of Santa Fe Institute

Ultimately, Flack and her colleagues are examining a variety of collective groups to determine how adaptive systems solve problems. While this sounds theoretical or even philosophical, the work is mathematically rigorous.

"At the Santa Fe Institute … we're building profound tools for complexity," Flack says. "We're working on general principals across systems and often that entails, because we're making comparisons, working on problems that are a little bit on the edge of science and making them rigorous and bringing them into science. That's where I fit: it's very conceptual and does involve some philosophy, but we're very data oriented, so the models we build are informed by data and building a mathematical theory. We're not doing philosophy."

She uses the example of monkeys, she says, "because they're relatively easy to get your head around; everyone can relate to the behavior of monkeys. It's much harder to understand the behavior of a cell or a neuron."

But talking about her work to a general audience, as she will at the Lensic, "helps me clarify my own thinking," Flack says. Flack formerly worked as the founding director of the Center for Complexity and Collective Computation in the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she ran public programming. "One of things I used to tell the audience is not to think of a lecture as, you're a vessel or a glass and information is being poured in and immediately ready for you to absorb … your job is to listen and think about it." Her goal is certainly to make the work accessible, she says, but also "for everyone to engage a little bit more."

The Collective Computation of Reality in Nature and Society
Santa Fe Institute Professor Jessica Flack
7:30 – 9 pm, Tuesday, Oct. 22. Free.
Lensic Performing Arts Center,
211 West San Francisco St.