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Alum Robin Burk on the Power of Networks

September 6, 2018 | By Kimberly Uslin

Robin Burk
Robin Burk (A72) is an expert on the networks that both help and hurt us. 

Robin Burk’s message for society is clear: The more intertwined we are, the more vulnerable we become.

In her recent TEDx Wilmington talk, “Countering Collapse of Our Interconnected, Interdependent World,” Burk (A72) warns of the danger of our increasing reliance on interconnected systems, a view developed by her career-long engagement with high tech, especially computing and data networks. In short, she says, we’d better be ready to stand alone if everything comes crashing down.

With four decades of education and experience backing her up, Burk certainly knows the systems well enough to see their shortcomings. But while her view may seem pessimistic, she is actually something of a fan of networks. Her love of the complex connections between things started when she was just a teenager.

“In a high school summer program from the National Science Foundation, I was exposed to the foundations of mathematics and the attempt to formalize logic,” she recalls. “It fascinated me, the idea that you could articulate ideas and structures behind the surface of things.”

Her curiosity about formalization led her to St. John’s, where she would be able to study the foundations of a wide range of subjects. 

“It was an odd choice for someone with my background, but of all the places I looked, it seemed like that place where I could learn about that,” she says.

She was right, though the Program raised more questions than answers (as many Johnnies have experienced firsthand).

“At St. John’s, we start with Euclidian geometry and begin to get a sense that the old assumption that Euclid simply reflected reality and was logical as a result didn’t hold,” she says. “There are two things happening. You see an attempt to push formalization of mathematics and formal logic and you see that come to a screeching halt when it became clear that arithmetic systems couldn’t be articulated with formal logic.”

After completing the Program, a “series of coincidences” led her to a career in computer programming at the Pentagon, “wandering the halls … in bell bottom jeans, thick glasses, and Birkenstocks” and working with the legendary Grace Hopper. Conversations among Hopper and Burk’s programming group complicated her already-complex understanding of formalization, even as technology expanded the world of hard facts and explainable processes. There were limits, Hopper explained, to what could be computed.

“She also suggested that we think strongly about whether what we were building was something we were building because we knew how to do it, or whether we were orienting it to actually solve a problem,” Burk says. “What was the purpose?”

As Burk moved on, forgoing technical work for project management, middle management, and eventually executive roles (as well as launching and leading small and mid-stage hi-tech companies), that concept of purpose-driven formalization remained on her mind. Stints as a successful technical writer, conference speaker, and consultant followed … and then tragedy struck.

“9/11 happened,” Burk says. “Our daughter was working in lower Manhattan about 75 miles south of us, and we couldn’t reach her by telephone for 35 hours.”

While the day was nightmarish, assurances of her daughter’s safety came a few hours later from relatives in the west—igniting another burning question in Burk.

“She was able to reach her grandmother and other relatives on the West Coast in the San Francisco/Bay Area within a couple of hours of the attack,” Burk says. “And I asked myself, ‘Why did it work that way?’ I knew the technology, but I kept thinking: Why did it work that way?”

Not long after 9/11, Burk landed at West Point with her husband Roger (A74). As a member of the faculty, she taught computer science and systems engineering—and during her time on campus, found the discipline she’d been looking for all along: network science, which formalized the study of complex networks.

“During that time, the head of science and technology for the U.S. Army had posed a question to the National Academy of Sciences,” Burk remembers. “‘Was network science a real new discipline or was it just a buzzword?’ Well, the academics came back and said ‘Not only is it a brand-new discipline, but the Army should be supporting research.”

Burk and several colleagues founded West Point's Network Science Center, then moved to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (the US center of counter-weapons of mass destruction expertise), where she grew a fledgling interest into a successful program in complex networks that attracted top researchers. DTRA needed new tools for understanding the potential impact of WMDs on today's interdependent, interconnected world.

“The world isn’t what it used to be,” Burk says. “We are heavily dependent on massive infrastructure, on the internet, on the power grid, on communication, on food systems … No one had the math to identify the likely impacts on various places in the U.S. if a weapon of mass destruction was used against us.”

Along the way, Burk finished her PhD dissertation in the issues of AI interpreting human language. After DTRA, she became one of 13 chief scientists at Battelle Memorial Institute, where she lead a team that applied network science and AI/machine learning to a variety of challenging problems, before going out on her own. Now she helps people and organizations cope with tech-driven change, including preparing for potential network collapse.

“When you have complex networks that interact with one another, under certain circumstances that interdependence creates substantial vulnerability inside of them. They go along and they’re fine, and then—boom—something small happens and it all collapses,” she says. “I’m taking some of the elements of network science and insights from my doctoral work and applying them to help individual people and organizations build resilience into their lives.”

It’s far from so-called ‘doomsday prepping.’ Instead, Burk is putting on a series of online courses for personalized preparations for households and for businesses, particularly those with more serious ethical and regulatory requirements.

“As I look around us today, I see a couple of things that concern me,” she says. “Our physical and social and economic structures are in a fragile state. The more that we rely on some of these hi-tech systems, the more fragile we are.”

Despite her underlying concern, however, Burk’s long-held interest in advanced tech prevails.

“I wish I were twenty,” she laughs, "because there are all these interesting things to go study again.”