Keynote: “Engineering new knowledge for the social and cognitive sciences”

I was invited to give the closing keynote address at the X Congreso Internacional Electrónica y Tecnologías de Avanzada, which was held March 26-28 in Pamplona, Colombia. The title and abstract are as follows:

Engineering new knowledge for the social and cognitive sciences

Dr. Tom Froese

The sciences of man are sharply divided over the role played by sociality. On the one hand, cognitive science tries to reduce all explanations of behavior, including human social behavior, to a single person (and often even to nothing but a single organ: their brain). On the other hand, anthropology and sociology have long insisted that most (if not all) human behavior is an irreducible product of our shared socio-cultural environment. Computer engineering and complex systems theory can help to build a bridge between these two viewpoints. In particular, computer models can be used as formal proofs of concept for the possibility that the individual and the social co-determine each other. In order to illustrate this possibility I will present two case studies that represent two different scales of sociality.

First, I discuss a computer model of embodied agents in which a dyadic interaction process reconfigures the internal activity of each agent such that it exhibits mathematical properties that are in principle impossible for the agents in isolation. This leads to novel predictions regarding human social interaction that we have been able to confirm by mediating pairwise human interaction over a basic virtual reality environment. Second, I demonstrate that computer models can also serve as thought experiments for large-scale social systems. I present results of a mathematical model that is loosely based on the social organization of the ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacan. The model makes it conceivable that local social interactions between agents who selfishly optimize their own utility can nevertheless consistently give rise to globally optimal social configurations even without any a priori knowledge of the problem space. This mechanism of spontaneous self-optimization of society may have been widespread in the pre-Hispanic world, as indicated by the prevalence of otherwise puzzling traditional practices focused on ritualized intoxication.


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