SOCIAM: The Theory & Practice of Social Machines

“Social Machine” is an expression that fires up the imagination, and people often have an instinctive understanding of what social machines are. Yet, when attempting to define them and to find a common understanding of what social machines are, they prove elusive.

SOCIAM: The Theory and Practice of Social Machines is a major new £12M research programme which aims to provide society with the ability to build the next generation of ‘social machines’ – with capabilities ranging from solving routine tasks to handling emergencies. Led by Nigel Shadbolt from the University of Southampton, SOCIAM involves David De Roure and Chris Lintott from the University of Oxford, as well as Peter Buneman and Dave Robertson from the University of Edinburgh.

SOCIAM is funded by the EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council), together with industry supporters including IBM, Microsoft Research, Google, BT, Deloitte and Edelman, government agencies and international research groups, who have matched the EPSRC’s £6.1M funding

Over the last 20 years, the transformation of our human landscape by the Web has been social as much as technological. We can now best understand sociotechnical systems - such as Wikipedia and Galaxy Zoo, which support purposeful human interaction online - as fully-functioning ‘social machines’. Comprising both digital and human components, these collaborative and distributed systems are empowering communities to identify and solve their own problems, and harnessing their commitment, local knowledge and embedded skills – without having to rely on governments or remote experts.

Four main areas will be addressed during the five-year programme: the evolution from problem-identification and solutions to social computing; the need for seamless access to a Web of Data; accountability and trust; and the complex interactions between machines, humans and data. SOCIAM is developing its own Observatory to monitor and classify the development and behaviour of social machines ‘in the wild’ as they evolve, and to act as an early warning facility for disruptive new innovations. The Observatory involves the Oxford e-Research Centre, the Oxford Internet Institute and the Web Science Trust, with community engagement supported by the Digital Social Research programme.