Collective Computation Group @ SFI


Santa Fe Institute, 1399 Hyde Park Road, Santa Fe, NM 87501 USA

I am a professor at SFI where I also run the Collective Computation Group with David Krakauer. We work on fundamental problems in evolutionary theory concerning collective behavior, collective computation, and collective intelligence—at all levels of biological organization—from societies of cells to societies of individuals to machine-human hybrid societies. We use insights and tools from biology, evolutionary theory, evo-devo, statistical physics, cognitive science and neuroscience, complexity science, animal behavior, information theory, theoretical computer science, and dynamical systems. 

Our work is empirically grounded and often motivated by deep understanding of finite, heterogenous, and typically relatively small model systems in which components have only partly overlapping interests and are noisy information processors dealing with noisy signals. So far we have worked with neural data, data from animal societies, slime moulds, and data from human societies.

My particular interests are in the role of collective computation/intelligence in the origin of space and time scales and in the emergence of robust structure and function in nature and society. And I am fascinated with the idea that components in adaptive systems 
construct their macroscopic worlds through collective coarse-graining in evolutionary and/or learning time.

Read a profile in
Quanta Magazine.


  • Robustness and regulation
  • Theory of collective computation and collective behavior
  • Biological circuits—construction and dimension reduction
  • Conflict and conflict management, including policing
  • Signaling and the evolution of communication
  • Innovation
  • Regularity extraction, information processing and coarse-graining by biological systems
  • Inductive game theory (getting strategies, payoffs, and game structure from time series data)
  • Micro to macro, emergence, and transitions between adjacent macroscopic states or social structures
  • Critical behavior and tuning in small-scale, adaptive systems
  • Individual and collective strategy and decision-making
  • Heterogeneity
  • Social niche construction
  • Power and dominance in animal societies
  • Origins of moral systems and social rules

Ay, N., Krakauer, D.C. and Flack, J.C. Robustness, causal networks, and experimental design, Princeton University Press, In prep.
Krakauer, D.C. & Flack, J.C. (edited volume in three part series). Complexity & Inference in Evolution, Princeton University Press
Flack, J.C. Space and Time, Pattern and Beauty. In development.

Jessica Flack is a professor at the Santa Fe Institute. Flack also directs SFI's Collective Computation Group (C4). Flack was formerly founding director of the Center for Complexity and Collective Computation in the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Flack received her PhD from Emory in 2003, studying cognitive science, animal behavior and evolutionary theory, and BA with honors from Cornell in 1996. Flack's work has been covered by scientists and science journalists in many publications and media outlets, including Quanta Magazine, the BBC, NPRNature, Science, The Economist, New Scientist, and Current Biology.

Flack's research focuses on collective computation and its role in the emergence of robust structure and function in nature and society. A central philosophical issue behind this work is how nature overcomes subjectivity inherent in information processing systems to produce collective, ordered states. 

Although most of Flack's work now is of a computational nature, Flack has spent thousands of hours collecting large behavioral data sets, including highly resolved time-series, from animal societies, and she conducted the first behavioral knockout study on social systems. In that study, she designed an experiment to disable a critical conflict management function—policing—to quantify its role in social system robustness in an animal society. In addition to peer-reviewed publications, Flack enjoys writing popular science articles and book reviews.

Flack's nonacademic interests include swimming, surfing, backcountry travel, rock climbing, cooking (chiles and super-spicy food, every conceivable type of gnocchi, curries, moles, pastries, sabayon and custards, various types of apple pie and pan nero), gardening and parks, ornamental grasses, conifers (especially those with weeping and irregular forms like Picea pungens weeping blue, Pinus mugo jacobsen, Picea abies cobra, Pinus parviflora tani mano uki, and any Cedrus deodara), tall bearded iris, orchids (esp. Phragmipedium caudatum) art (a diverse bunch, here drawn kind of at random: James Turell, Bruegel, Andrew Wyeth, Eric Fischl, James Drake, Cindy Sherman, Joseph Cornell, African art, Walton Ford, Aboriginal art, Balthus, Klee, Klimt, Lucien Freud, Odd Nerdrum, Giovanni Bellini, Marcel Dzama, Roberto Matta, Brancusi, etc….), all kinds of film (e.g. Alien, Duck You Sucker, Bebette's Feast, The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, The Lives of Others, Terminator, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited, Bottle Rocket, Tom Ford's A Single Man, Die Hard, Bottle Rocket, Lost in Translation, The Big Gun Down, True Grit--the original and the new one, La Grande Belleza, Captain Fantastic), science fiction, literature (e.g., Tropic of Cancer, Blood Meridian, Suttree, Absalom Absalom!, Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, all of Borges, Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick, Ellison's Invisible Man, Gravity's Rainbow, The Recognitions, Lolita, Moby Dick, Carpentier's The Kingdom of this World and Explosion in a Cathedral, Donoso's Obscene Bird of Night, The Mars Trilogy, Tolkien, Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Baldwin's Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, Beckett's Trilogy…Lord of the Rings), fashion (Rick Owens, futuristic Marni, fully floral Dolce & Gabbana…), and people who are naturally empathic and observant.

A few favorite places include Paia and Maui's north shore, Big Sur, maybe parts of East Berlin in the summer, the Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, New York, Telluride, the Weminuche Wilderness, the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, the Grand Tetons, Corsica, Chang Mai, Tanzania, Patagonia, Kyoto, Venice, Morocco, and all of the desert southwest—particularly Santa Fe, NM, which Flack considers her home. Flack lives with David Krakauer, two cats, including one Tonkinese cat, and a dog, who are best buddies. She would have one Tonkinese cat for each harpooner and mate in Moby Dick, but for some reason David does not think this is a good idea. . .

Third photo by Gabriella Marks. Drawing by James Drake.