To respond to the recent rapid changes in technology, we need a better understanding of how groups alter their decision-making strategies and beliefs to cope with emerging problems. (image: Roberto Reposo/Unsplash)

Humans are social creatures. We coalesce into families, tribes, cities, and countries, and we create structures and pathways to govern ourselves. Throughout history, we have introduced institutions — religions or new forms of government, for instance — to help us adapt and overcome population growth and technological advances. However, we currently lack the systems to adapt to modern technology, particularly social media and artificial intelligence, that are threatening the accepted beliefs, norms, and behaviors that underpin modern societies. 

“In the last 20 years our social networks have evolved, and our individual behaviors are now maladapted,” says SFI Vice President for Applied Complexity Will Tracy. “The world has changed and we have not been able to shift our behavior anywhere near the speed at which our network structures are changing.”

To respond to these changes as a society, we first need a better understanding of how groups alter their decision-making strategies and beliefs to cope with emerging problems. Enter Tracy and SFI Professor Mirta Galesic, who are hosting an interdisciplinary workshop September 12–14, 2023, to advance collective adaptation research and build cohesion among the research community. The meeting, part of SFI’s CounterBalance Series and funded by Siegel Family Foundation, will convene scientists from a range of biological, social, and physical sciences. Also attending are senior representatives from civic organizations and the tech industry, who will share real-world experiences and insights to inform future research questions. 

“Technology has changed the way we organize and synthesize information,” says Galesic. “In a flash, we can integrate information from thousands of people, and social norms are changing because it is easier to deceive and defraud people.” 

In a recent article published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, Galesic and colleagues introduced the theoretical scaffolding that will guide the workshopThe authors’ collective adaptation framework establishes links between social integration strategies, social environments, and problem structures, which shape how groups respond to dynamic situations. Workshop participants will use the framework to explore the mechanics of collective adaptation, particularly as they relate to new technologies that open the door for large-scale information manipulation. 

There are many foundational questions still to be answered about collective adaptation: Why do some technological platforms foster more or less beneficial adaptation? How do collectives adapt cognitive strategies and social networks to match emergent problems? And how do we handle the problems that online social environments present?

“We all have a big task to adapt to these new social environments, but we do not yet know how,” said Galesic. “This is an opportunity to come together to tackle the problem and see what we are missing.”