Social scientists, not data scientists are the next big thing

December 31, 2018

 

A little while ago, hiring a data scientist was the most innovative, hip thing your company could do. They were heralded as unicorns - seemingly impossible to hire, with six-figure salaries as a result. But change is afoot and although data scientists are still much in demand, social scientists will soon strut the halls as the ‘hot new thing’ for businesses.

 

In the clamour to develop technology, often businesses will forget about the humans who will use such tech. But it’s not enough to invent new technology with the belief that humanity will evolve with it. Whilst developments such as artificial intelligence (AI) and self-driving cars are impressive, they need to convince people beyond the industry to use and trust them. That’s where social science comes in. It helps tech companies understand the everyday Joe who will use their products, to pre-empt any concerns and increase adoption of cutting-edge technology.

 

Rise of the social scientist

 

Social scientists are experts in human behaviour, often an insight that data scientists, engineers and programmers lack. They come from different academic streams, such as economics, anthropology, sociology and psychology. A social scientist is your go-to for insights on user behaviour, patterns in groups and understanding different segments of a population.

 

There’s also a new kind of social scientist on the rise: the computational social scientist. This is someone who can bridge the social science and data science worlds, using data science tools to explain social behaviour.

 

Why social scientists are needed

 

We’re on the cusp of some drastic changes to our work and social lives. AI, blockchain and automation are just some of the developments that will alter our daily lives. But no matter how ground-breaking or advanced a technology is, it will flop if the public doesn’t like it. Businesses, therefore, need to find ways to get humanity used to major advances in technology, such as AI and self-driving cars. Three quarters of Americans, for example, state that they are too afraid to ride in self-driving cars.

 

Plus there’s predicting the impact of technology on human behaviour. Fake news spread like wildfire on social media, thanks to algorithms promoting the content. Had a social scientist had a say in such programming, perhaps the outcome of the U.S. election would’ve been very different. Now, perhaps in hindsight, Facebook has begun working with a group of social scientists, giving them access to its vast data stores for research.

 

Then there’s addressing the limitations and challenges facing the tech industry. Social scientists can help reduce unconscious bias in AI, for instance. They can be consulted to work on the AI’s design, parameters and the data it is trained on to ensure a balanced result.

 

Social science in the driver’s seat

 

Social scientists have also been playing a crucial role in the development of self-driving vehicles. Melissa Cefkin, principal scientist and design anthropologist at the Nissan Research Center has been researching the many different ways that humans interact with vehicles in the real world. People don’t behave in a predictable way, especially when it comes to crossing the road!

 

Cefkin looks at body language, to determine a common language between a self-driving car and a human. To work effectively, self-driving cars will need to signal intentions to any pedestrians walking near crossings or on the road. In other words, they will need social skills. Who better to teach that than a social scientist?

 

Additionally, there’s a trust element. People won’t get into a vehicle that they don’t think will keep them safe. Social scientists need to find ways to reassure passengers and pedestrians alike. As Cefkin explains, “Cars are profoundly intertwined with our lives. The increasingly autonomous future will reconfigure how that will feel. What will it mean for these vehicles to be good citizens in the world? How will they interact with everybody else on the road? That’s a job for social scientists to understand.”

 

Many companies, including Waymo, Uber and Ford are conducting their own experiments with self-driving technology and humans. Some have built real-life conditions in a lab, whilst others have taken to the roads in meme-worthy fake self-driving cars to see how people react.

 

Social science will become more advanced

 

With advances in technology, the social science profession will also grow in the quality and perception of its research. There is a wealth of data available to social scientists. We freely publish details of ourselves on social media and share our data whenever we log into the Internet. Every transaction, click, like and share is being tracked somewhere. It just takes a savvy social scientist (and a data science colleague) to unlock its value.

 

In a somewhat virtuous circle, AI can also help social scientists sift through tons of data on human behaviour in mere minutes. Plus, there are many open data sources for social scientists to use such as data.gov.uk. These new technologies and sources mean that social scientists can now study things that were previously unobservable or didn’t even exist.

 

Social science’s time to shine

 

As the uses of social science to businesses become apparent, social scientists will become more in-demand. Larger companies such as Facebook have already cottoned onto the many benefits of social science. Where they lead, soon others will follow.

 

What was once a ‘soft’ science compared to its more quantitative peers, will come into the spotlight. Indeed, its the softness of the profession that is its greatest asset: being able to understand the organic, sometimes strange behaviour of humanity.

 

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