Jessica's research focuses on coarse-graining and collective computation in nature and their role in the evolution and development of hierarchical, multi-scale structure in biological and social systems. These multi-scale systems are often composed of nested collectives of components, or, in the case of animal societies, individuals. A goal of Jessica's work is to determine whether there are common algorithmic principles underlying the formation of these collectives.
In pursuit of this goal, Jessica and her colleagues study a wide range of collectives, from group of cells forming tissues, to groups of macaques forming animal societies, to groups of online gamers forming virtual societies.
Jessica is exploring the possibility that robust aggregates emerge from interactions among self-interested components through a process of collective social computation. The basic idea is that coarse-grained, statistical representations of collective dynamics are more predictive of the future state of the system than the constantly in-flux behavioral patterns at the individual, or microscopic, level.
The data suggest that when components can perceive these representations, they use them for strategic decision-making. As an interaction history accumulates the coarse-grained representations consolidate, minimizing environmental uncertainty, facilitating adaptation, and providing the foundations for new levels of organization.
The time scales on which these representations change impact whether the consolidating higher-levels can be modified by individuals directly and collectively. The time scales appear to be a function of the ‘coarseness’ of the representations and the character of the collective dynamics over which they are averages. An advantage of multiple time-scales, and perhaps multiple organizational levels, may be that they allow social systems to balance tradeoffs between predictability and adaptability.
This research has involved development of novel computational techniques (Inductive Game Theory) for extracting strategic decision-making rules from time-series data and constructing causal networks or adaptive social circuits that map microscopic dynamics to macroscopic states.
Key concepts that capture the themes in Jessica's research projects include computation in nature and endogenous coarse-graining, collective cognition and behavior, adaptive social circuits, micro to macro, developmental dynamics and the causes of multiple time-scales, conflict and conflict management, robustness, major transitions and niche construction, and the role of information and communication in biology and social evolution.
With two colleagues--David Krakauer and Nihat Ay, Jessica is writing a book on robustness, causal networks, and experimental design that will be published by Princeton University Press.
Jessica Flack is Co-Director of the Center for Complexity and Collective Computation in the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Jessica received her BA with honors from Cornell University in 1996, studying anthropology, evolutionary theory, and biology. She received her PhD from Emory University in 2004, studying animal behavior, cognitive science, and evolutionary theory. For the next eight years she was in residence at the Santa Fe Institute, first as a Postdoctoral Fellow and then as Research Professor, and finally as Professor. She moved to the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 2011. Jessica’s research has empirical and theoretical components and sits at the interface of evolutionary theory, pattern formation, behavior, cognitive science, computer science, information theory, and statistical mechanics. Although most of her work now is of a computational nature, she has spent thousands of hours collecting large behavioral data sets, including highly resolved time-series, from animal societies, and she conducted the first behavioral knockout study on social systems. In that study, she designed an experiment to disable a critical conflict management function—policing—to quantify its role in social system robustness in an animal society. In addition to peer-reviewed publications, Jessica enjoys writing popular science articles and book reviews. Her work has been covered by other scientists and science journalists in many publications and media outlets, including the BBC, NPR, Nature, Science, The Economist, New Scientist, and Current Biology.
Jessica's nonacademic interests include swimming, surfing, backcountry travel, cooking, chiles, super spicy food, gnocchi recipes, sour orange curries, moles, conifers, labyrinthine gardens, walled gardens, parks, Japanese gardens, orchids of the species Phragmipedium caudatum, art and painting in particular, people who are good observers, all kinds of film (e.g. Alien, Duck You Sucker, Bebette's Feast, The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi, Seven Samurai, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, The Lives of Others, Terminator, The Royal Tenenbaums, Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth, Tom Ford's A Single Man, Die Hard, The Exterminating Angel, Gosford Park, The Big Gun Down), science fiction, literature (e.g., Tropic of Cancer, Blood Meridian, Suttree, Absalom Absalom!, Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, all of Borges, Ellison's Invisible Man, Lolita, Moby Dick, Carpentier's The Kingdom of this World and Explosion in a Cathedral, Donoso's Obscene Bird of Night, The Mars Trilogy, Tolkien, Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Baldwin's Tell Me How Long the Trains Been Gone, Beckett's Trilogy), the American west, bourbon & whiskey, and fashion (Rick Owens, futuristic Marni, fully floral Dolce & Gabbana . .). A few of her favorite places are Paia, Big Sur, Telluride and the Weminuche Wilderness, the Grand Tetons, Corsica, Tanzania, Venice, Morocco, and Santa Fe, NM. She lives with David Krakauer and three cats, including one Tonkinese cat, and a dog. She would have one Tonkinese cat for each harpooner and mate in Moby Dick, but for some reason David does not think this is a good idea. . .
Dr. Jessica Flack
Wisconsin Institute for Discovery
330 N. Orchard Street
Madison, WI 53715