Important and complex systems may be more controllable than they appear

Mar 20, 2014
To control complex systems, Professors Ruths and Ruths identify levers - parts of the system (e.g., proteins in cells and companies in markets) - that can be used to influence the rest of the system. Control profiles, imaged here as triangular heatmaps, depict the breakdown of these leverage points based on three elements of network architecture. Despite the diversity of control profile signatures arising from real world systems, clusters form around these same three components and provide insight into the organization of these systems.Credit: Justin and Derek Ruths

We don't often think of them in these terms, but our brains, global financial markets and groups of friends are all examples of different kinds of complex networks or systems. And unlike the kind of system that exists in your car that has been intentionally engineered for humans to use, these systems are convoluted and not obvious how to control. Economic collapse, disease, and miserable dinner parties may result from a breakdown in such systems, which is why researchers have recently being putting so much energy into trying to discover how best to control these large and important systems.

But now two brothers, Profs. Justin and Derek Ruths, from Singapore University of Technology and Design and McGill University respectively, have suggested, in an article published in Science, that all complex systems, whether they are found in the body, in international finance, or in social situations, actually fall into just three basic categories, in terms of how they can be controlled.

They reached this conclusion by surveying the inputs and outputs and the critical control points in a wide range of systems that appear to function in completely different ways. (The critical control points are the parts of a system that you have to control in order to make it do whatever you want - not dissimilar to the strings you use to control a puppet).

"When controlling a cell in the body, for example, these control points might correspond to proteins that we can regulate using specific drugs," said Justin Ruths. "But in the case of a national or international economic system, the critical control points could be certain companies whose financial activity needs to be directly regulated."

One grouping, for example, put organizational hierarchies, gene regulation, and human purchasing behaviour together, in part because in each, it is hard to control individual parts of the system in isolation. Another grouping includes social networks such as groups of friends (whether virtual or real), and neural networks (in the brain), where the systems allow for relatively independent behaviour. The final group includes things like food systems, electrical circuits and the internet, all of which function basically as closed systems where resources circulate internally.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
Control Profiles: Control Profiles of complex networks indicate that different types of systems share common underlying features, which allow them to be controlled in similar ways. These connections across function and discipline are captured by the grouping of systems into three distinct classifications. Credit: Justin and Derek Ruths

Referring to these groupings, Derek Ruths commented, "While our framework does provide insights into the nature of control in these systems, we're also intrigued by what these groupings tell us about how very different parts of the world share deep and fundamental attributes in common – which may help unify our understanding of complexity and of control."

"What we really want people to take away from the research at this point is that we can control these complex and important systems in the same way that we can control a car," says Justin Ruths. "And that our work is giving us insight into which parts of the system we need to control and why. Ultimately, at this point we have developed some new theory that helps to advance the field in important ways, but it may still be another five to ten years before we see how this will play out in concrete terms."

Explore further: Hewlett-Packard recalls 5 million AC power cords

More information: 'Control Profiles of Complex Networks' in Science by Justin and Derek Ruths: www.sciencemag.org/lookup/doi/… 1126/science.1242063

Provided by McGill University

4.9 /5 (17 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Animals first flex their muscles

1 hour ago

An unusual new fossil discovery of one of the earliest animals on earth may also provide the oldest evidence of muscle tissue – the bundles of cells that make movement in animals possible.

Introducing the multi-tasking nanoparticle

4 hours ago

Kit Lam and colleagues from UC Davis and other institutions have created dynamic nanoparticles (NPs) that could provide an arsenal of applications to diagnose and treat cancer. Built on an easy-to-make polymer, these particles ...

Eta Carinae: Our Neighboring Superstars

5 hours ago

(Phys.org) —The Eta Carinae star system does not lack for superlatives. Not only does it contain one of the biggest and brightest stars in our galaxy, weighing at least 90 times the mass of the Sun, it ...

Recommended for you

Hewlett-Packard recalls 5 million AC power cords

Aug 26, 2014

Hewlett-Packard Company is recalling about 5.6 million notebook computer AC power cords in this country and another 446,700 in Canada because of possible overheating, which can pose a fire and burn hazard.

LG bets on pricey OLED technology as future of TVs

Aug 25, 2014

LG Electronics Inc. announced two new giant OLED TVs with ultra-high definition screens Monday, sticking with its strategy of using the exceptionally expensive OLED display technology.

Giant tablets aimed at families

Aug 20, 2014

Costing a little more than an iPad but standing more than twice as tall, a new pair of giant tablets wants families to share cozier group experiences with technology.

Myo armband and smartglasses set for deskless workplace

Aug 20, 2014

Thalmic Labs, Canada-based makers of the Myo armband, has announced the integration of Myo with smartglasses, with the partnership help of a number of companies pairing the Myo with their products. The gesture-control ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Whydening Gyre
not rated yet Mar 20, 2014
Ahhh... Fractality makes it to mainstream...