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Professor Sandy Pentland    

Director, MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory and the MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program

If the Big Data revolution has a presiding genius, it is MIT’s Alex “Sandy” Pentland. Over years of groundbreaking experiments, he has distilled remarkable discoveries significant enough to become the bedrock of a whole new scientific field: social physics. We can now predict and change the social structures of companies, governments, communities and much more, to solve some of our most difficult issues. Social physics is about idea flow, the way human social networks spread ideas and transform those ideas into behaviors. It will change the way we think about how we learn and how our social groups work—and can be made to work better, at every level of society. In his newest book, Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread—The Lessons from a New Science, Pentland leads you to the edge of the most important revolution in the study of social behavior in a generation, an entirely new way to look at life itself.

Professor Pentland is revered as a pioneer in organizational engineering, mobile information systems, and computational social science. Pentland's research focus is on harnessing information flows and incentives within social networks, the big data revolution and converting this technology into real-world ventures. His work provides organizations with better management tools and better ways to interact with their customers. Pentland is the World Economic Forum’s lead academic for its big data and personal data initiatives. His book, Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World was published in 2008 by the MIT Press.

Pentland directs MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory and the MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program, and is a founding member of the Advisory Boards for Nissan, Motorola Mobility, Telefonica, and a variety of start-up firms. In 2011, he was chosen as one of the world's top data scientists by Tim O'Reilly in Forbes magazine and in 2012, Forbes named him one of the ‘seven most powerful data scientists in the world.’ In 2013, he won the McKinsey Award from Harvard Business Review. He is among the most-cited computational scientists in the world and a pioneer in computational social science, organizational engineering, wearable computing (GoogleGlass), image understanding and modern biometrics. His research has been featured in Nature, Science, Harvard Business Review, as well as being the focus of TV features on BBC World, Discover and Science channels.

Pentland’s research group and entrepreneurship program have spun off more than 30 companies to date, three of which are publicly listed and several that serve millions of poor in Africa and South Asia. Audiences have the opportunity to learn from one of the world’s leading data scientists about the new science of idea flow. Through passionate speeches, he offers revolutionary insights into the mysteries of collective intelligence and social influence.

Speech Topics


Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread—The Lessons from a New Science

Until now, sociologists have depended on limited data sets and surveys that tell us how people say they think and behave, rather than what they actually do. As a result, we’ve been stuck with the same stale social structures—classes, markets—and a focus on individual actors, data snapshots and steady states.

To understand our new world, we must extend familiar economic and political ideas to include the effects of these millions of people learning from one another and influencing one another’s opinions. We can no longer think of ourselves as individuals reaching carefully considered decisions; we must include the dynamic social effects that drive economic bubbles, political revolutions and the Internet economy. In this speech, Pentland shows that, in fact, humans respond much more powerfully to social incentives that involve rewarding others and strengthening the ties that bind than incentives that involve only their own economic self-interest.

Based on his book Social Physics, he will change the way we think about how we learn and how our social groups work—and can be made to work better, at every level of society. Pentland leads audiences to the edge of the most important revolution in the study of social behavior in a generation, an entirely new way to look at life itself.

Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World

How can you know when someone is bluffing? Paying attention? Genuinely interested? The answer, writes Alex Pentland in Honest Signals, is that subtle patterns in how we interact with other people reveal our attitudes toward them. These unconscious social signals are not just a back channel or a complement to our conscious language; they form a separate communication network.

Pentland, an MIT professor, shares in this speech how he has used a specially designed digital sensor worn like an ID badge--a "sociometer"--to monitor and analyze the back-and-forth patterns of signaling among groups of people. He and his researchers found that this second channel of communication, revolving not around words but around social relations, profoundly influences major decisions in our lives--even though we are largely unaware of it. Pentland presents the scientific background necessary for understanding this form of communication, applies it to examples of group behavior in real organizations, and shows how by "reading" our social networks, we can become more successful at pitching an idea, getting a job, or closing a deal.

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