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Friday, July 18, 2008

Why do humans cooperate in things as diverse as environment conservation or the creation of fairer societies,

How a simple mathematic formula is starting to explain the bizarre prevalence of altruism in society
How a simple mathematic formula is starting to explain the bizarre prevalence of altruism in society
Why do humans cooperate in things as diverse as environment conservation or the creation of fairer societies, even when they don’t receive anything in exchange or, worst, they might even be penalized?
This is a question that has puzzled academics for centuries, especially since in evolution the basis for the “survival of the fittest” is, after all, selfishness. But in an article just published in the journal Nature, three Portuguese theoretical physicists develop a mathematical model capable of providing a way out from this conundrum through the introduction of social diversity - a ubiquitous characteristic of modern social networks - and suggesting that that the act of cooperation is dependent on one’s social context/ranking.

And in fact, when social diversity was taken into account the numbers of those cooperating increased in direct relation to the system diversity. Furthermore, cooperation, according to this model, spreads even faster when the act of cooperation is considered more important than the amount given, with these societies presenting also a much fairer distribution of wealth. This new mathematic model for society’s evolution is particularly interesting because not only it reveals a logic behind the large numbers of cooperators that we know exist in all human societies, but also it gives us a glimpse of the principles that can help “pushing” them into a better, fairer, path.

Evolutionary game theory is a mathematical approach used to study (and predict) the evolution of social interactions, in which the study of conflict and decision-making is treated – like its name indicates – as a game. One such example are public good games (or PGG), which are frequently used to study cooperation as they look into social behaviour towards public goods - such as education, free health or even street lightning – those that every one can benefit from, regardless of how much they contribute (or not) to create it.

Here because the individual’s benefits are independent of he/she contribution the most rational and selfish strategy (both in the games and real life) is to chose no-cooperation, what we know does not happen in real life. This is a good example of how difficult it has been to understand and create a theoretical model capable of explaining the emergence and prevalence of cooperation not only among humans but many other species.

What Jorge M. Pacheco and Marta D. Santos (University of Lisbon, Portugal) did - together with Francisco C. Santos (Free University of Brussels, Belgium) - in order to overcome this apparent paradox, was to introduce into PGG, for the first time, a new variant – social diversity – in contrast to the models previously used in which all individuals were equivalent. Social diversity here refers to the characteristics typical of most social networks: the existence of individuals with different numbers and types of social connections, with few very highly connected and most with very few connections.

Since PGG are represented as a mathematical formula, diversity was introduced as a new variable in the equation. Then Santos, Santos and Pacheco used this new altered formula to calculate the percentage of collaborators in the community, in function of population diversity (in PGG this would refer to the number and type of games each individual participated or, in other words, his/her “popularity”). And in fact, it was found, that in populations with high diversity, as diversity increased also did collaboration levels.

The way PGG work is that each individual pays a certain amount to play (defectors play but do not pay/cooperate) and in the end profit, which is the total amount gathered in a game, is divided by all players. The reason why diversity increased cooperation had to with the fact that those few individuals with more connections and playing more games (the cooperators) would also have much higher “profits” and their impressive success would lead the other players to imitate their behaviour (even when the behaviour per se did not seem to improve directly their own life) resulting in an exponential increase of cooperation. In the same way, in real life the more connected/popular individuals are emulated, becoming role models and opinion makers.

Equally the model also predicted that even when no-cooperators lead to new no-cooperators (as it happens many times in real life where this kind of behaviour can spread within groups) this will result in less profit, less success and eventually their own self-extinction with only a few sporadic ones left to parasite cooperators.

Furthermore, it was also shown that the increase in cooperation was particularly accelerated when all individuals contributed to the games with the same total contribution, independently of the number of games played. This corresponds, in real life, to saying that if the act of contributing to the public good was seen as more important than the amount contributed, the percentage of collaborators in a community would grew much faster.

Interestingly, the model, when applied in a more economical perspective, also suggests that these communities, with high diversity and where the act of cooperation is what matters, will also have a much fairer wealth distribution.

In conclusion, social relations, in this case differences in “popularity”, tested when introduced into PGG , are suggested to be crucial for the spread of cooperation throughout society.

Although this is obviously a very simple mathematical model and reality will never be as linear, Santos, Santos and Pacheco’s results gives us a total new perspective on how to look at ways of increasing cooperation/altruism and, consequently, also on how to create more successful societies, concerning issues as crucial to our survival as the protection of the environment or fairer social relationships, contributing in this way to the construction of a more peaceful world with less conflict and destruction.

NPD: Nintendo Wii the top-selling, current-gen console

To truly understand how Wii revolutionizes gaming, you have to try it for yourself. Quite simply, Wii is for everyone. The ease of use and interactivity of the Wii Remote and Nunchuk allow for a unique social gaming experience for the whole family. You don't just play Wii, you experience it.

NPD has released its analysis of June's retail activity, and the industry's sales numbers continue to skyrocket with $1.69 billion in game sales, $615 million spent on consoles, and $202 million from accessories. "The video games industry continues to perform in the face of an ever-increasingly difficult economic environment as many turn to more in-home entertainment," said Anita Frazier, industry analyst for NPD. "Even if growth slows over the back half of 2008, the industry is poised to achieve record-breaking revenues of over $22B for the year."

Related StoriesNintendo Wii outsells 360, PS3, PS2, PSP combined in April
Nintendo proclaimed at E3 that when the NPD numbers were released, the Wii would become the best-selling console of this generation, and to the surprise of no one, that prediction came true.

Given that the Wii has consistently dominated sales over past months, it isn't terribly surprising to hear that the console has officially racked up the largest installed base in the US. According to Frazier, "The Wii has taken the lead in total sales of current generation console hardware at 10.9 million units sold at retail life-to-date in the U.S."

Despite the fact that the Wii has outsold the 360 as well as the PS3 with a total of 666,700 units sold, June's console of choice was actually the DS, with 783,000 purchased. The DS's strong sales might have had something to do with Guitar Hero On Tour, which sold 442,300 copies and took the number two position in software sales

While no one is surprised to hear that Wii games are showing robust sales numbers, it's somewhat shocking to hear that Wii Play is still a top-seller on the console, having moved 346,100 copies in June. "Wii Play continues to achieve an attach rate of over 50 percent to every new Wii hardware system sale," said Frazier. "I can't think of another game that has ever had that kind of performance after 16 months at retail." Also on the list was Wii Fit with 372,700 units, Mario Kart Wii with 322,400 units, and Lego Indiana Jones with 294,500 on the Wii and 267,800 units on the DS.

With both of their consoles dominating the competition by leaps and bounds, as well as taking six of the top ten slots for game sales, it would seem that Nintendo is continuing its domination of the gaming world.


Sony, of course, saw a huge surge in console sales thanks largely to Metal Gear Solid 4: consumers snapped up 405,500 units in order to play what could already be the system's killer app. The game itself sold nearly 775,000 copies— not including the new MGS4/PS3 bundle being pushed at retail—taking the number one slot on June's top ten games list. "Platform-exclusive content usually fuels hardware system purchases, and PS3 sales certainly reflect the impact of Metal Gear Solid 4," said Frazier. "PS3 unit sales were the highest of any month outside of that recorded during previous November/December holiday timeframes."

Meanwhile, the PSP came in fourth with 337,400 sold, outselling the 360 by over 100,000 units; the PS2 sat in last place with 188,798 units sold. While no other PS3 games were amongst the top ten games, Lego Indiana Jones for the PS2 managed to take tenth place with 260,300 copies purchased. That PS2 games are still breaking onto the top ten list proves "mass-friendly titles are a perfect fit for the still healthy PS2 platform."

Having been surpassed by the PSP, the Xbox 360 sat in fifth place for June, having only moved 219,800 systems. Combined with the fact that the 360 version of Grand Theft Auto IV has fallen completely off the top ten list, Microsoft's sales seem less than stellar. Ninja Gaiden II and Battlefield: Bad Company took the third and sixth software slots, with respective sales of 372,700 and 346,800.

While no one did poorly in the month of June, and the industry continues to show amazing growth as consumers buy games and consoles in huge numbers, Nintendo's ascent to the number one slot in the race for US supremacy is now official.

NebuAD CEO defends web tracking-US lawmaker wants consent required for Web-tracking

Internet providers should be required to get their customers' permission before the companies are allowed to track their online visits, a key House lawmaker said on Thursday.

Democratic Rep. Edward Markey, chairman of the House subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet, said broadband network operators should have to get "opt-in" permission from customers before using sophisticated technology that can track their movements online.

Markey cited the sophistication of the technology being used, known as deep-packet inspection, as well as the technology's capability and the obvious sensitivity of the personal information that can be gleaned from a consumer's Web use in backing the opt-in requirement. His comments came in a prepared statement at a subcommittee hearing on Thursday.

Deep-packet inspection, or DPI, has sparked privacy concerns among some lawmakers and consumer advocates. Those concerns were sharpened earlier this year when cable company Charter Communications (CHTR.O: Quote, Profile, Research) disclosed plans for a pilot program, in partnership with an advertising company called NebuAd, to track customers.

Charter said the service would be anonymous and would not collect or use any information that identifies individuals. It has pledged to protect customers' privacy and said they would be allowed to opt out of the program. But Charter later put the program on hold because of the privacy concerns.

NebuAd's chief executive, Bob Dykes, testified at Thursday's hearing, telling lawmakers that the company's advertising network benefits consumers by serving them with more relevant online ads.

Dykes assured lawmakers on the subcommittee that NebuAd does not collect personally identifiable information about Web users or store "raw data" linked to individuals.

Dykes said NebuAd requires the Internet service providers it works with to provide "robust" disclosure notices and the chance to opt out of the service.

But Markey said network operators should be required to take an "opt-in" approach and that there should be no "monitoring or data interception" of customers who do not consent
In a Senate hearing on targeted advertising this morning that eventually devolved into conversations about post-nasal drip, Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) did get in one good shot at NebuAd, the controversial firm that hopes to harvest ISP traffic data on an opt-out basis to deliver more relevant ads. "Isn't that just wiretapping?" Dorgan asked. NebuAd's CEO looked a bit uncomfortable with the question. "My lawyers have told me we're in compliance with the law," he offered.

The issue of behavioral advertising has gained increased traction on Capitol Hill recently, thanks in no small part to NebuAd and its trial with cable operator Charter (now on hold). At issue is whether NebuAd's boxes can legally slurp up all that web traffic without a user's express consent. We noted yesterday that NebuAd insists its opt-out stance is a "breakthrough," but it's hard to see how; a real "breakthrough" would be making the service completely opt-in.

Robert Dykes, NebuAd's CEO, stressed repeatedly that his company uses one-way hashes to obscure IP addresses and that it collects no personally identifying information. Instead, NebuAd analyzes web page data and notes whether a user is interested in certain ad categories; if so, web companies that partner with NebuAd can deliver targeted ads in those areas of interest. So what's the problem?

Leslie Harris of the Center for Democracy and Technology countered that federal and state law are the problems. The Wiretap Act, she said, doesn't care if information is personally identifying or not; it cares only whether wire data is being intercepted, not whether the interception is "good" or "bad." In her view, if the interception happens without "affirmative, express consent," it may well be illegal. In addition, many state laws require two-party consent for this sort of thing, and no matter how much "notice" a company gives people, without consent, such practices could run afoul of these laws.

"Consumers are largely uncomfortable with the practice" of third parties riffling through their web traffic without consent," she said, but Dykes countered that his company was really helping ISPs to pay for bandwidth upgrades (though somehow they've managed to do so up until now without selling their users' traffic to third parties).

The Federal Trade Commission was also on hand to assure Congress that it was looking into the general issue of behavioral advertising, but its current plan is to let the industry regulate itself. Harris noted that a major industry effort, the Network Advertising Initiative, has been around for years, but only launched an overhaul of its best practices after the FTC began looking into the issue.

Google, which is hoping to join the NAI, had initially refused to slap a "privacy" link on its front page like most other members did, and only last week did it relent. With a Google attorney testifying today at the hearing, Congressional scrutiny likely had something to do with the decision; no one likes to show up before Congress only to face questions about why their company can put links to advertising and business opportunities on the home page, but can't find space for privacy.

A Microsoft lawyer at the hearing took the opportunity to make an oblique attack on Google, though, pointing out that Microsoft has had a clear link to its privacy on its home page "for several years."

Not every company in attendance was against federal privacy law in this area, but the general sentiment seemed to be in favor of self-regulation. Clyde Wayne Crews of the Competitive Enterprise Institute was on hand to tell the senators that regulation (in general, apparently) wasn't needed, since everything is regulated already by "furious consumers and shareholders." This assumes, of course, both information symmetry and a truly competitive market; certainly, neither bit of "regulation" has done much for cable TV, which routinely comes up at the bottom of consumer satisfaction surveys and has prices increase by a 100 percent a decade.

The ISP market in much of the country is in a similar position, usually with only a pair of decent options. If more than a few ISPs began adopting NebuAd-style behavioral advertising on an opt-out basis and consumers don't like it, there may be little they can do. Senator Dorgan took issue with Crews' point, saying that if it were taken to a logical extreme, we wouldn't need the FDA inspecting food, since people would just stop buying products that made them horribly ill.

As for information symmetry, Dorgan noted that neither he nor most consumers "have the foggiest idea" about what's being tracked, how long it's maintained, and what it's being used for. No pending legislation appears to be in the works, especially with a few months until a new Congress, and most senators seemed inclined to wait for the FTC to conclude its own work on behavioral advertising in the next few months before visiting the issue seriously.

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