Saturday, April 4, 2009

Dr. Alex Pentland and "Honest Signals"

Yesterday, we had the distinct honor and privilege of hosting Dr. Alex "Sandy" Pentland of the Media Lab at MIT. Dr. Pentland spoke in the Spring 2009 Speaker Series in Operations Research / Management Science that is organized by the UMass Amherst INFORMS Student Chapter. I am the Faculty Advisor of this student chapter which is based at the Isenberg School of Management. Dr. Pentland's talk was on "Honest Signals," which is the title of his latest book published by MIT Press. Dr. Pentland discussed his research on mining honest signals, that is behaviors that are sufficiently expensive to fake that they can form the basis for a reliable channel of communication. Examples of such signals are: influence, mimicry, activity, and consistency. By wearing a device known as a sociometer data can be captured on these signals, digitally processed, and then analyzed. The beauty of the research and technology, which has been called by Technology Review as "A technology poised to change the world," is that dyadic interactions between people can be measured and quantified. The datasets generated are massive since they are over space and time. Groups from students to back office workers to bank employees and poker players have worn sociometers and their interactions codified. Scenarios from sales and negotiations to dating and hiring have been analyzed and signaling has been found to accurately predict "who will succeed, and who will not."

Pentland spoke on how these signals date to primates who interact in groups and the signals are objective and essentially impossible to fake. His book, which I could not put down and finished in one reading, contains footnotes and citations to the scholarly literature. In it, he discusses the value of brainstorming and how enthusiasm can be spread by "social circuits," plus the importance of enthusiasm and charisma (and how it can be quantified and measured). The animations in his presentation included the flows of email versus face-to-face communication of employees in an organization as well as the movements of people in San Francisco. He has also studied interactions of humans in a hospital setting.

How often can one say that a book can change the way one looks at the world?! If you read "Honest Signals" you will become more aware of human interactions and you will look at human communication in a deeper way. This is a book that I will return to in order to further plumb its pearls of wisdom and terrific and provocative phrases such as: "honest signals combine to characterize social roles - leading, teaming, listening, and exploring;" "conversation is biologically expensive," and "the signals are a reading of basic brain functions." One of my favorite quotes from the book is: "If you go to a session at the United Nations, say, you will see a person present written speeches in a designated order, and most people listen to a translator rather than the speaker themselves. The result is that while influence due to signaling has been reduced to near zero, the experience is also terminally boring."

The audience for Dr. Pentland's talk included faculty and students (from undergraduate to PhD) from the Isenberg School, from Engineering, and Computer Science as well as an economist from the University of Vermont, among other guests. The University Bookstore was kind enough to have copies of Pentland's book available for purchase and signing.

The lunch at the Chancellor's Room at the University Club at UMass Amherst was, as always, delicious, but it was the conversations that the students and I had with Pentland that we will always treasure. Pentland is a genius and I don't use that word lightly. As his talk, book, and our conversations signalled, "face-to-face communications will not be replaced by virtual communications, since the former change both the messenger as well as the receiver."

And, of course, there is another "Amherst is the Center of the Universe" moment here -- Pentland holds the same chaired professorship that the founder of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Dr. Marvin Minsky, held. Dr. Minsky's daughter, Margaret, who has a PhD in Computer Science from MIT, is a neighbor of mine in Amherst.