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Dr. Nicholas Christakis

Influential and Renowned Social Scientist; Director, Human Nature Lab; Co-Director, Yale Institute for Network Science; Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science, Yale University

Nicholas A. Christakis, MD, PhD, MPH, is the Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale University. An internationally renowned scientist, he works in the fields of network science, biosocial science, artificial intelligence, and data science. He directs the Human Nature Lab and is the Co-Director of the Yale Institute for Network Science.

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A key challenge of artificial intelligence (AI) transcends the issue of human-machine interactions and relates to human-human interactions in the presence of machines. Dr. Christakis has been at the forefront of the scientific exploration of such “hybrid systems” of humans and AI. Christakis has shown how the careful yet simple programming of AI agents can enhance the performance of human groups, making people within such groups better able to cooperate, coordinate, innovate, and communicate, ultimately contributing to their superior performance. On the other hand, both simple and complex forms of AI (such as large language models) can also do the opposite, harming groups of people and our society as a whole. In this presentation, he takes audiences behind the scenes of his groundbreaking, cutting-edge work on how AI agents can affect human social processes and performance. Christakis decodes his latest findings on the interactions between humans and AI and reveals what the disruptive introduction of AI into our lives means for the future of human social behavior. Christakis shows that there are ways to design AI so as to make sure it supports a utopian rather than dystopian future.

The current climate of social upheaval can cause us to lose sight of the inherent goodness in people and society. But Dr. Christakis’ research offers a more optimistic view. Too often, he argues, scientists and citizens often focus on the dark side of our biological heritage, such as our capacity for aggression, cruelty, prejudice, and self-interest. But natural selection has also given us a suite of beneficial social features, including our capacity for love, friendship, cooperation, and teaching. Beneath all our inventions—our tools, farms, machines, cities, nations—we carry with us innate proclivities to make such a good society. Indeed, our genes affect not only our bodies and behaviors, but also the ways in which we make societies, and therefore ones that are surprisingly similar worldwide. Using many, wide-ranging examples—including diverse historical and contemporary cultures, communities formed in the wake of shipwrecks, commune dwellers seeking utopia, online groups of both people and artificially intelligent bots, and even the tender and complex social arrangements of elephants and dolphins that so resemble our own — Christakis shows that, despite a human history replete with violence, we cannot escape our social blueprint for goodness. In a world of increasing political and economic polarization, it’s tempting to ignore the positive role of our evolutionary past. But Christakis shows how and why evolution has placed us on a humane path—and how we are united by our common humanity. Christakis infuses his remarks with tangible and inspiring takeaways for leaders to improve cooperation, innovation and performance within their organizations

Human beings choose their friends, and often their neighbors and co-workers, and we inherit our relatives. Each person to whom we are connected does the same. In the end, we assemble ourselves into face-to-face social networks. Why do we do this? And how might a deep understanding of human social network structure and function be used to intervene in the world to make it better? By taking into account people’s structural embeddedness in social networks, and by understanding social influence and social contagion, Dr. Christakis says it is possible to intervene in social systems to enhance desirable population-level properties as diverse as health, wealth, cooperation, coordination, and learning. Drawing from research in his lab, he reveals three classes of interventions – involving both offline and online networks – that can bring about positive outcomes: (1) interventions that rewire the connections between people; (2) interventions that manipulate social contagion, facilitating the flow of desirable properties within groups (or decreasing the spread of undesirable properties like viruses or fake news); and (3) interventions that manipulate the position of people within network structures. He illustrates the variety of ways these interventions can be used to, for example, foster cooperation in networked groups online, facilitate the diffusion of innovation and coordination in groups, and change health behaviors in developing world villages or firms. He also focuses on recent experiments with “hybrid systems” comprised of both humans and artificial intelligence (AI) agents interacting in small groups. His work offers organizations in every sector a dramatic opportunity to improve key areas of business from marketing, customer service, and health care delivery, to innovation and team performance.

Christakis’s work reveals that AI’s influence is not limited to efficiency and productivity; it profoundly affects our social fabric and consideration for what is ethical. As AI is introduced into common daily tasks like driving, human behavior patterns are altered. What happens when AI must make life-or-death decisions? Christakis challenges us to consider these implications as AI becomes an integral part of our lives.

“In experiments with self-driving cars, simple AI forms eroded norms of reciprocity on the road, leading to increased crashes when AI assistance was removed,” he cautions, warning that, as individuals become more reliant on AI, its elimination could have lasting effects on judgment skills. This observation points to a significant shift in human behavior and decision-making in the presence of AI – a topic that extends far beyond the technical functioning of AI itself.

“Seeing AI as a social catalyst might help avoid any unintentional harm of AI to interpersonal interactions within groups and networks,” Christakis continues. Backed by decades of pioneering work studying human connections, he deftly unveils both the applications and the social effects of AI, including the positive and negative implications for individuals and organizations. An optimist, his engaging presentations explain what leaders can do to thoughtfully and safely navigate these complex dynamics. His research offers a vital perspective for businesses where understanding the societal impacts of AI helps in anticipating future trends and ethical challenges.

The “Working Together” seminar is a 2.5 hour immersive software-supported experience with Dr. Nicholas Christakis. Join the likes of Apple and Google who have raved about this interactive experience. For more details, contact WWSG.

Biography

Nicholas A. Christakis, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., is the Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale University where he is appointed in the Departments of Sociology; Statistics and Data Science; Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Biomedical Engineering; Medicine; and the School of Management. He is the author of more than 200 scientific articles and several books, as well as many essays in venues such as The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

Christakis is the Director of the Human Nature Lab at Yale University, which investigates a broad range of subjects related to human interactions – from how to exploit social contagion to facilitate the adoption of innovations, to how to use AI to affect social processes online and in person, to how micro-organisms spread in social networks.

His influential 2009 book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, documented how social networks affect our lives and was translated into over 20 languages. His 2019 book, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, which detailed the evolutionary science behind the inherent goodness in human society, was a New York Times bestseller and was translated into nearly 20 languages. His 2020 book, Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live, was longlisted for the 2021 PEN America Literary Awards and will be translated into over 10 languages.

In 2009, Christakis was named to Time magazine’s annual list of 100 most influential people in the world. In 2009 and 2010, Foreign Policy magazine named him to its annual list of Top 100 Global Thinkers.

Christakis received his B.S. from Yale, his M.D. from Harvard Medical School, his M.P.H. from the Harvard School of Public Health, and his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. He was elected to the National Academy of Medicine in 2006; the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2010; and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2017.

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