PLAN 72: Article
Two Research Awards And An Important New Book

Sandy Pentland’s Work on Human Dynamics and Communication

Alex (Sandy) Pentland, Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, is on a roll. In recent months he has not only published a new book, he has also won two research prizes for his work on human dynamics and communication. In honor of his book Honest Signals, he was named the winner of the 2008 Future of Health Technology Award, and for his research on human-vehicle interface technologies he was named a winner of the 2008 Carlos Ghosn Award from Nissan Motor Co., Ltd.

Published by the MIT Press, Honest Signals shows how subtle patterns in our interactions with others reveals our attitudes toward them. These unconscious social signals are not just a complement to our conscious language, they actually form a separate communication network that if properly understood, Pentland claims, can accurately predict the outcomes of situations ranging from first dates to job interviews.

Using a 'sociometer' – a specially designed digital sensor worn like an ID badge – Pentland and his researchers have analyzed the back-and-forth patterns of signaling among groups of people and found that this second channel of communication profoundly influences major decisions in our lives, even though we are largely unaware of it. The book presents the scientific background necessary for understanding this form of communication and describes how we can harness it to become better managers, workers and communicators.

The book was honored by The Future of Health Technology Institute, a think tank dedicated to defining the health technology agenda for the 21st century, for 'inspiring others to make the Earth a better place for the human race: reducing suffering, maximizing the potential for self-realization of the human kind and extending human potential with technology'.

The award also recognized his work on projects like the 'depression meter', a system that can screen for depression based on a caller's tone of voice, and ‘memory glasses’, eyeglasses with a tiny embedded computer that sends messages to a mini TV screen on the glasses; the messages, like someone's name or a word like 'keys' or 'medicine', flash by too fast for the eyes to notice but are registered by the brain. Tests have shown a 50% better memory with these than without, and people aren’t even aware that anything is happening.

Pentland's other award, from Nissan, recognizes his advanced research on human dynamics, work that inspired the 'robotic agent' that debuted in the Nissan PIVO2 concept vehicles; other applications of the work include innovations such as Distance Control Assist and Around View Monitor which are standard in luxury Nissan cars today. Winners of the award receive a monetary grant worth two million yen.

Pentland is a pioneer in organizational engineering, mobile information systems and computational social science. He directs the Digital Life consortium, a group of more than twenty multinational corporations exploring new ways to innovate, and oversees the Next Billion Network, established to support aspiring entrepreneurs in emerging markets, and the EPROM entrepreneurship program in Africa. He is among the most-cited computer scientists in the world, and in 1997 Newsweek magazine named him one of the 100 Americans likely to shape this century.

Posted November 2008