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Machines meet the physics of the social

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Interview. We spoke with Alessandro Vespignani, whose new book ‘The Algorithm and the Oracle’ examines the predictive abilities of machines. ‘They are learning, but we don’t understand well how they do it.’

written by Benedetto Vecchi

June 18, 2019

Not a case of “brain drain,” but of a brain on the move: as Alessandro Vespignani confesses, he had no intention of leaving Italy, but his mentor strongly advised him to accept the scholarship offer he received from across the Atlantic, since there was no possibility at all to get a scholarship at La Sapienza, despite the fact that the Roman university is considered to be at the highest level. In the United States, Alessandro Vespignani began working on the topic of complexity.

As part of Benoît Mandelbrot’s team, he got to know famous physicists, mathematicians, engineers and sociologists (Albert-László Barabási and David Lazer), who were always willing to have a talk over coffee about how to study topics such as the spread of epidemics, artificial intelligence and fake news. Vespignani ended up teaching Yale, Indiana University and Northeastern University, becoming one of the major scholars working on “complex networks,” whether these are social, neural, stable or transient.

Now, his book L’algoritmo e l’oracolo (“The Algorithm and the Oracle,” published in Italian by il Saggiatore, 197 pages, €20) has just come out, in which he examines the artificial worlds that humans and machines are building. The book highlights the contrast between the actual predictive potential of computer science and its transformation into an article of faith on the part of many opinion makers, according to which the digital realm will exercise an undeniable power in shaping our future.

At the same time, the author does not take the “easy” road of rejection taken by the French philosopher Jacques Ellul, who rails against technology and science, seeing them as the means for a future soft dictatorship over our daily lives. More pragmatically, his reflections are pursuing a different avenue of interest: Vespignani’s research lies at the forefront of what has been called “social physics,” i.e. the attempt to analyze a reality that is more and more permeated by the digital realm, and which shows power equilibria and a transformation of our social mode of being calling for careful........

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