INTERVIEW | Prof. Albert-László Barabási on networks, global inequality and artificial intelligence

UrbanizeHub had the opportunity to meet Prof. Albert-László Barabási, a distinguished professor from the Northeastern University, Central European University and Harvard University. He introduced in 1999 the concept of scale-free networks and proposed the Barabási–Albert model to explain their widespread emergence in natural, technological and social systems, from the cellular telephone to the World Wide Web or online communities. 

Author of “Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do” and “Linked: The New Science of Networks,” Prof. Barabási shared his thoughts on network science and its implications for cities. He likewise shares his insights about global inequality and artificial intelligence.

URBANIZEHUB: Prof. Barabási, you said that network science is the foundation of the 21st century, so how do you see cities in your work and how should we evolve at the global level in order to have more sustainable and smarter cities?

PROF. BARABÁSI —Well, I mean, networks are essential for cities. This is something we actually study in our lab. We have a big project called city resilience where we’re trying to understand the underlying networks that shape cities. Let’s just talk about some essential networks, without which we cannot exist.

First of all, there is an infrastructure network, whether it is a road network or a transportation network. Then there is the supply network, which is electricity and water, and on top of that there is a kind of communication network like the internet, phone lines, whatever the system is. And then equally important, probably the most important, is the social and professional network that connects individuals and allows possibilities to happen.

The fact is, that you cannot have, you cannot miss any of them to have a successful city so all of them have to be working together. This is what we call a multilayered network situation because these are networks of their own, the transportation network, social networks and so on, but they are interdependent.

When the transportation network goes down, get the facts from the social network, get the facts to fix certain things and so on. And so this network research on cities is a major research area all over the world. City research is an exploding subject because what we learned last year, that indeed, cities offer amazing value to their inhabitants.

Amazingly, the bigger the city is, the fewer resources it requires, and the more value it creates. So when you look per inhabitants, how much resource, how much road you need in your city, how much water pipe, how much key internet cable—the larger the city, the less you need per capita.

And if you look at how much workers of the individual city are paid, how creative the city is, it is interesting to note that the bigger the city is, the more creative it is.

So there is a major value actually, we realized, in this economies of scale within the city. The larger the city, the more combinations are possible and the more value can be created. You can understand very easily why.

If you are in a small city and you’re missing, let’s say, internet developers, there’s nothing you can do that will touch the internet. And the moment you grow the city enough you start having internet developers, then suddenly the possibilities start to open up to do more. And then if you have the internet developers but you are missing the start-up culture, the start-up expert, well, you need to grow your city bigger to attract these people as well and eventually in the big cities all these components coexist and allow individuals to establish their dreams in the more sophisticated way.

URBANIZEHUB: But apparently as cities grow, it seems that inequality grows. And as we see it, it is a problem at the global level.

PROF. BARABÁSI: Well, inequality absolutely. Equality emerges when you have a large network and whenever you need to make a decision to distribute resources. How do you stop inequalities? That’s what regulation and taxation are for. So as much as none of us don’t like taxes, taxes have very strong benefits to the society and really there is no other way of stopping inequality at a global level than by kicking the top off and redistributing and offering opportunities to those who may not have access to them otherwise.

Prof. Barabási launching his book Linked, The science of network, 

URBANIZEHUB: When we speak about technology in general and about blockchain in particular, apparently, we are talking about reducing the institutions, the middlemen who are dealing with taxes. How does this relate to the interactive dynamics between individuals on a specific network?

PROF. BARABÁSI: Correct. But on the other hand, one of the things we learned in network is that the larger the network, the bigger is the biggest hub. And this actually a very precise law—how the biggest hub scales against the size of the network. And so that’s the underlying inequality in the system and if you let the system do what it wants, it will naturally develop that. If you think it’s unhealthy for your society, you must tap regulation and you must tap taxes to stop that. There are cases where this inequality and globalization are great, there are cases where there are side effects.

EU countries are realizing that much of the value and the funds in created in Europe are growing and are broad. In the US and other places, they impose taxes and yet there are no tax benefits to their population even though the money is created locally. So that kinds of responses begin to take an interest in Google and Facebook, which are companies allowed to operate globally but they are not subject to local taxes in the same way the local companies are.

What Europe is creating is basically that ‘we’re going to create a special form of taxes that would allow us to keep taxes and the revenues that are created locally.’ That’s the way the society has to respond and it’s within our rights as a society to do that, and it is within our responsibilities as a society to recognize that if we give freedom to the network, to the individuals to redistribute the money they want in under those circumstances, always the rich get richer because the economies of scale emerges and we’re sending much of our funds towards those who provide the best services…those who provide the best service will specialize on that and will provide that very cheap and very easily available services which will save much of the money.

URBANIZEHUB: For example, there are a lot of companies that are going global, there are lots of international organizations which want to tackle global issues, but at the same time we see that communities are having the most important approaches because they are more localized. So how do you see the future, do you see it going global or do you see it in a local lens with the collaboration between different local units, let’s say cities. Can cities be the nations of the future?

PROF. BARABÁSI: Yes, the city-nation as used to be in Italy, right back in the medieval times. I mean, you know, there is a saying that there are lots of truth to it, it’s “think globally, act locally.” I don’t know who coined it and you may want to look it up. There are lots of truths to that in a sense that there are certain services that make sense to be provided globally. You know, as much as we momentarily don’t like Facebook, but Facebook is one of those, and so is Uber – as much as some people don’t like the concept, there are clear benefits in getting off the plane, in any country of the world, and opening the same app, getting a car and not trying to figure out a whole system.

There are lots of services that make sense to be global. But then they need to be regulated within their local context to provide values to their local communities. So this kind of “think globally” and have certain services global but then adapting them to the local community is the balance that we need to find, and the same balance that countries and continents have to find.

And I think what happened in the last 30 years is that globalization was so aggressive that the legal and taxation systems have not kept up with it. And I think now we’re realizing that if we let globalization go unchecked, it will siphon away people and values locally…so in a way or another it’s not only money that is moving away, but also brains.

And how do we find balance in that? I think everybody is struggling, not only in Romania. Romania is particularly struggling to this question because they say EU countries are the source of migration…and you are losing lots of very valuable, very smart and very capable individuals who are not going to create value here. They’re going to go somewhere where they can create value easier and more effectively. So at what moment does it work for that young individual to stay locally, and how do we help them find a way to say “yeah, it’s more worthwhile to stay”?

And I’ve seen it many times in Budapest. For example the youth in Budapest is very hard to convince to go abroad to study now because Budapest has created an ecosystem within which people are enjoying themselves and the social ties are pulling them back and as long as they feel that they can establish themselves professionally as well in the city, they say “I would rather stay with my friends,” so, you know this is all what to have try to every local organization or every city: to create an environment where people feel “Well, I want to stay here and I can stay here.”

URBANIZEHUB: Down to my last question. It’s about technology. Prof. Barabasi, you keep talking about networks and its implication to cities. I’m thinking about the battle between good and bad. This brings me to the notion of artificial intelligence and the fear that machines and AI will drive the world in the next 25 years. And if they are not raised with empathy then they probably won’t be too good to us.

PROF. BARABÁSI: Yes, I know… AI is coming, I mean, it’s unavoidable. It’s not a question of whether it’s going to come and be able to overcome us. The question is when it will happen. Indeed, we, as humans, are looking at a very important task: how do we handle it, how do we regulate it. If we built it right, it can be a huge boom to us. But if we built it wrongly, at one moment it will overcome our intelligence, and sooner or later we could be enslaved by that.

I think lots of people are thinking about that very carefully. I’m not that scared about it, but I’m worried about what it means to society if AI comes up too suddenly. Even in my lab we started doing research on AI and network mainly to just understand, look a bit deeper at the capabilities and how far it will affect us, and when the moment when it will replace me as a researcher will come. But I think it’s something that we, as a society, have to be very careful in thinking about this because the transition could be very fast at the societal time and if we don’t adjust again our taxation and our economic system to them, then we humans may lose our ability to do anything at all.

We live in a connected world. Networks dominate our economy and our society. Network science is the foundation of the XXI century.

Connected: The Power of Six Degree or How Kevin Bacon Cured Cancer is a 2008 documentary film by Annamaria Talas. It was first aired in 2009 on the Science Channel. The documentary introduces the audience to the main ideas of network science through the exploration of the concept of six degrees of separation.

Prof. Albert-László Barabási is the Robert Gray Dodge Professor of Network Science and a Distinguished University Professor at Northeastern University, where he directs the Center for Complex Network Research, and holds appointments in the Departments of Physics and College of Computer and Information Science, as well as in the Department of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women Hospital in the Channing Division of Network Science, and is a member of the Center for Cancer Systems Biology at Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Follow Prof. Barabási work on his website. 

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