The real world has many important characteristics. One I heard being quite salient is the fact that time passes. Any picture of the world has to evolve to reflect change, otherwise it is doomed to be representative only of a narrow moment in time. This is quite a problem in computer science, because when we want to analyze something we need to spend a lot of time in gathering data and, usually, the analysis can be done only once we have everything we need. It’s a bit like in physics, when the problems are solved in the vacuum and in the absence of friction. Of course, many people work to develop dynamics models, trying to handle the changes in the data.
Take link prediction, for example. Link prediction is the branch of network science whose aim is to predict which connections are more likely to appear in the near future, given the current status of a network. There are many approaches to this problem: one simply states that the probability that two nodes will connect is proportional to their current degree (because it’s being observed that high degree nodes attracts more edges, it’s called “preferential attachment“), another looks at the history of the new edges which came into existence and tries to redact some evolution rules (see the paper, not much different from my work on signed networks).
What’s the problem in this? The problem lies in the fact that any link came into existence in a specific moment, in which the network shape was different from any other moment. Let’s consider the preferential attachment, with an example. The preferential attachment tells you that the position in the market of Google not only is not in danger: it will become stronger and stronger, because its high visibility attracts everybody who needs the services it is providing. However, Google was not born with the web, but several years after. So in the moment in which Google was born, the preferential attachment would have told you that Google had no chance to beat Yahoo. And now it’s easy to laugh at this idea.
So, what happened? The idea that I investigated with my colleagues at the KDDLab in Italy is extremely simple: just like Earth’s geological times, also complex networks (and complex systems in general) evolve discontinuously, with eras in which some evolution rules apply and some others, valid in other eras, don’t. The original paper is quite old (from 2010), but we recently published an update journal version of it (see the Intelligent Data Analysis Journal), that’s why I’m writing about it.
In our paper, we describe how to build a framework to understand what are the eras in the evolution of a network. Basically, everything boils down to have many snapshots of the network in different moments of time and a similarity measure that tells you how similar are two consecutive snapshots. Then, by checking the values of this similarity function, one can understand if the last trends she is seeing are providing reliable information to make predictions or not. In our world, then, we understand that when Google enters in the web anything can happen, because we are in a new era and we do not use outdated information that do not apply anymore to the new scenario. In our world, also, we are aware that nobody is doomed to success, regardless how good its current position is. A nice and humbling perspective, if I may say.
I suggest reading the paper to understand how nicely our era detection system fits with the data. The geekier readers will find a nice history of programming languages (we applied the era discovery system to the network of co-authorship in computer science), normal people will probably find more amusement in our history of movies (from networks of collaboration extracted from the Internet Movie Database).
So, next time you’ll see somebody trying to make predictions using complex network analysis, check if she is considering data history using an equivalent of our framework. If she does, thumbs up. If she doesn’t, trust her just like you would trust a meteorologist trying to forecast tomorrow’s weather by crunching data from yesterday down to the Mesozoic.