Pioneer & Pacesetter

Ali JadbabaieToday's super-networked world of data and interdependency offers engineers important problems to solve and surprisingly transferrable solutions. Penn has first-mover advantages in this realm academically through its Networked & Social Systems Engineering (NETS) program for undergraduates.

"Being first has its own risks. But these sets of problems are here to stay,” says Ali Jadbabaie, NETS director and co-founder of the program, which is now in its third academic year. "No other university offers a comparable undergraduate program that applies rigorous scientific, mathematical and computing concepts to networked systems such as the Internet, online social networks and advertising, virtual and real-world markets, the current power grid and the future smart grid."

"Traditional degree programs in engineering are what they’ve been since post World War II. The structure is the same while the content has changed. Meanwhile, the problems society faces have all changed," says Jadbabaie, Alfred Fitler Moore Professor of Network Science in Electrical and Systems Engineering. "We created NETS for students who are excited and able to tackle multidisciplinary challenges, create disruptive technologies, work at companies like Google and Facebook, and develop new types of businesses."
Penn is similarly a leader in research applying network science to diverse economic and social science domains. Jadbabaie is principal investigator for a $7.5 million Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) award with collaborators from Cornell, MIT, Stanford and Georgia Tech.

The five-year project, "Evolution of Cultural Norms and Dynamics of Socio-Political Change," began in 2012. It reflects what NETS co-founder Michael Kearns describes as "a research revolution you might even call 'a collision' around the realization that the social sciences and engineering have a lot to talk about with each other. Social sciences are bringing new problems and ways of thinking about systems to engineering, and engineering is bringing new solutions and analytical tools to a lot of sociological problems. What’s making this possible is vast data online and offline that was never available before."

Like the 1987 Lakers

"Being on this incredible MURI research team is likebeing on the 1987 Los Angeles Lakers," says Kearns, National Center Professor of Management and Technology in Computer and Information Science, who became co-director of Penn's new graduate Warren Center for Network & Data Sciences in 2013. "Ali is one of the luminaries and leaders of a young generation of scholars who are realizing that disciplines that historically focused on traditional engineering problems can be used to understand very different types of systems. The work of this extremely ambitious grant is largely ahead of us and reflects his rare talent for integrating disparate input and ideas."

Jadbabaie came to Penn in 2002 as a theoretician with expertise in control theory, which integrates math with electrical and mechanical engineering. "It's basically the idea of getting a system to behave the way you want it to," Jadbabaie says, "like a home thermostat or a car’s cruise control." His 2003 paper on coordination among mobile autonomous agents has been cited 4,100 times.

Inspired by the movement of schools of fish and flocks of birds, Jadbabaie then expanded control theory to reflect communication patterns within a group. He and Vijay Kumar, UPS Foundation Professor in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, collaborated to program groups of aerial robots to fly autonomously around moving obstacles.

Epiphany: Broad Relevance

In 2008, Jadbabaie and his students realized there were similarities between the rules governing collective behavior in flocks of birds and the dynamics of opinion in crowds. Jadbabaie, together with former postdoctoral associate Victor Preciado, currently the Raj and Neera Singh Term Assistant Professor in Electrical and Systems Engineering, soon realized that network theory can be used to predict the speed at which the contagion (as in fads, fashion, products and rumors) spreads.

These insights have been broadly influential, especially in economics. "Historically, economists have not thought about interactions between different decision makers from a network perspective. They usually focus on a market interaction," says Alireza Tahbaz-Salehi, assistant professor at Columbia Business School. Jadbabaie was his Ph.D. advisor. "Network science provides us with a new perspective and an extra set of tools."

"Engineering and computational approaches offer useful tools and insights of broad utility to problems outside the engineering discipline," says George Pappas, Joseph Moore Professor and chair of Electrical and Systems Engineering. "Most of the biggest advances in the last 60 years have brought technology closer to people’s daily lives. To translate the issues and opportunities this raises into an undergraduate, research-rich program means our graduates will be amazingly well-prepared for the 21st century networked world." Jadbabaie concurs. "As an engineering discipline, this is very close to the marketplace. We are emphasizing the disciplinary fundamentals that are here to stay. Our graduates will have enormous opportunities for recruitment."

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