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Surprising Science

How to Control Any Complex System

A new computational model out of M.I.T. can analyze any type of complex network—biological, social or electronic—and reveal the critical points that can be used to control the entire system. 

What’s the Latest Development?

M.I.T. professor of mechanical engineering and brain and cognitive sciences, Jean-Jacques Slotine has developed a new computational model that can identify the minimum number of points in a complex system needed to control it, whether the system be biological, social or electronic. Slotine applied his model to real-life systems like cell phone networks, social networks, networks that control gene expressions in cells and neural networks. “For each, [Slotine’s team] calculated the percentage of points that need to be controlled in order to gain control of the entire system.”

What’s the Big Idea?

Control theory, the study of how to govern the behavior of dynamic systems, lays the foundation for this new research and has been used to develop airplanes, cars, robots and electronics. The cruise control in your car, for example, relies on control theory. “The ultimate proof of our understanding of natural or technological systems is reflected in our ability to control them,” says a write up of Slotine’s research. If researchers can determine how bacterial metabolic networks are controlled, future applications of the work could include reprogramming adult cells and identifying new drug targets.


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