Sean Gourley

Big data isn’t just for companies. It’s an emerging tool for understanding global conflict.

TED Fellow and Founder of Quid

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Sean Gourley | TED Fellow and Founder of Quid
Lavin Exclusive Speaker

TED Fellow Sean Gourley has three passions in life: physics (such as self-assembled quantum nanowires), politics (he once ran for a national elected office in New Zealand), and technology (he is the founder of one of the fastest growing companies in Silicon Valley). A Rhodes scholar, Gourley’s spent the past decade using data and algorithms to understand the nature of human conflict—the mathematical patterns that underlie modern war. 

Sean Gourley, trained as a physicist, has turned his scientific mind to analyzing data about a messier topic: modern war and conflict. He focuses on complex adaptive systems and collective intelligence to understand what makes us go to war, when, and why. As Gourley puts it, “This research has taken me all over the world from the Pentagon, to the House of Lords, the United Nations and most recently to Iraq.” 


In 2009 Gourley published his research in the scientific journal Nature and then left academia to move to Silicon Valley to seek funding for his mathematical research from a different source—venture capital. In 2010 he launched Quid, a big data company that builds software to augment human intelligence. He has raised $17M in financing and counts some of the biggest companies and governments in the world as customers, who use Quid to understand everything from political protests to high frequency trading.

He has a PhD in physics from Oxford, has previously worked at NASA on self-repairing Nano-circuits, is a two-time New Zealand track and field champion, and a 2012 World Technology Network award winner.  

Speech Topics

Innovation and a Market for Insurgency

In this lecture, Sean Gourley talks about the nature of innovation. He looks at how people solve problems by combining and re-combining ideas together, to form new ones. Gourely unpacks his HBR article on strategy and shows us how we have used big data to map out the global landscape of technology, and how the same tactics can be used to inform business decisions. He explores how insurgencies operate, why they are so successful and how they are able to survive by out innovating their more conventional opposition. Gourley finishes the lecture by drawing parallels between the insurgents in Iraq and the startup companies in Silicon valley. They both exhibit surprisingly similar mathematical signatures and we see how group dynamics can be used for good or for bad.

Online Behavior
Man vs. Machine High-Frequency Trading and the Rise of the Algorithm

In this talk, Sean Gourley looks at the limitations of human cognition. He helps your team to understand what the brain can and cannot do and see how these limits create niches for algorithms to exploit. Gourley takes the audience on a journey through understanding the world of high frequency trading, from quote stuffing to how the speed of light allows for relativistic arbitrage and perhaps trading platforms on oil rigs in the atlantic, and how a single tweet can move a market. The financial markets are a world dominated by algorithms: but these same types of algorithms also define the world that we humans live in, from the things we read, to the price of our insurance and the friends we connect with. Algorithms are a big part of our lives, and its unclear if we are creating them or they are creating us. The talk is broad and accessible, it covers a range of topics from predatory algorithms to machine readable news to the lessons we can learn from studying ecological networks in the high Sierras.

Politics & Society
The Mathematics of War

By analyzing raw data on violent incidents in the Iraq war and others, Sean Gourley and his team of mathematicians, physicists, and computer scientists uncovered a strong and surprisingly mathematical relationship linking the fatality and frequency of insurgent attacks. In eye-opening talks, Gourley shares empirical data and personal anecdote, revealing far more about the mathematics of war than we ever knew before.

Online Behavior
Augmented Intelligence How Big Data Can Make Us Smarter
In this lecture Sean Gourley talks about the three kinds intelligence: artificial intelligence (machines), collective intelligence (wisdom of the crowds), and augmented intelligence (amplifying human cognition). He uses the example of three games of chess to illustrate these concepts and show how augmented intelligence can beat artificial intelligence and collective intelligence. In fast-paced and illuminating keynotes, Gourley reveals about how the human brain processes information and filters out the noise, and he shows how we attempt to mirror this with software tools like Google’s pagerank and Facebook’s edge rank algorithms. Gourley will discuss the work his is doing with his company, Quid, designing interfaces for humans to interact with data and algorithms. With highly visual examples of how this allows humans to augment their intelligence through software and algorithms, Gourley shows you a side of big data you have never seen before.