Rensselaer To Lead Multimillion-Dollar Research Center for Social and Cognitive Networks

Boleslaw Szymanski, center director and Claire & Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor of Computer Science at RensselaerWith $16.75 million in funding from the Army Research Laboratory (ARL), Rensselaer 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.

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 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.

"Together with other centers of the CTA, we are creating the new discipline of network science,” said Boleslaw Szymanski, the center director and Claire & Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor of Computer Science at Rensselaer. “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 members will take part in the center research. Szymanski will be leading the interdisciplinary team that includes James Hendler, senior professor of the Tetherless World Research Constellation and head of information technology; Wayne Gray, professor of cognitive science and acting head of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; Sibel Adali, associate professor of computer science; Malik Magdon-Ismail, associate professor of computer science; Mark Goldberg, professor of computer science; Chjan Lim, professor of mathematical sciences; William Wallace, professor of decision sciences and engineering systems; Gyorgy Korniss, associate professor of physics, applied physics, and astronomy; and Michael Schoelles, research associate professor of cognitive science.

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.

The center’s research will focus on five topics:

  • Dynamic processes in networks, and the human interactions and the underlying technological infrastructure they utilize.
  • Organizational networks, and the ways knowledge is spread from peer to peer in the modern military.
  • The study of adversary networks, dealing with terrorists and other hidden groups within a society.
  • Trust in social networks, seeking to measure the level of trust within a network and the impacts of trust in a network.
  • The impacts of human error in social networks, using computational systems that predict how human error or bias will influence judgment.

"As the diversification of nations and societies progresses, understanding of social and cognitive networks and their impacts on people’s behavior and operation will become increasingly important,” Szymanski said. “These networks impact the Army in all aspects of its operations, from internal cohesiveness to their ability to perform complex missions in increasingly complex international social environments. Equally important is that these networks impact our society in a very similar way, as the complexity of social interactions grows and the influence of other societies on our lives increases."

To read more about the center’s research focus, go to