Jacob Foster

Jacob Foster


Office: 204 Haines Hall

Email: foster@soc.ucla.edu

Phone: 310-825-1031

Curriculum Vitae

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I am interested in the birth, life, and death of ideas. Fundamentally, I want to know how complex wholes become smarter than their parts. 

I am a computational sociologist interested in the social production of collective intelligence, the evolutionary dynamics of ideas, and the co-construction of culture and cognition. My empirical work blends computational methods with qualitative insights from science studies to probe the strategies, dispositions, and social processes that shape the production and persistence of scientific and technological ideas. I use machine learning to mine the cultural meanings buried in text, and computational methods from macro-evolution to understand the dynamics of cultural populations. I also develop formal models of the structure and dynamics of ideas and institutions, with an emerging theoretical and empirical focus on the rich nexus of cognition, culture, and computation. I am currently writing a book on knowledge as an emergent feature of complex adaptive systems. I am founding co-Director of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute, a program that aims to build community, collaboration, and creative thinking among early career scholars interested in the study of mind, cognition, and intelligence of diverse forms and formats—from ants and apes to humans and AI.

After studying mathematical physics at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, I received my Ph.D. in Physics (with a specialty in Complexity Science) from the University of Calgary. I then spent three years as a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago before moving to UCLA in 2013. My work has appeared in American Sociological ReviewScienceProceedings of the National Academy of SciencesNeurIPS, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Sociological Methods & Research, American Journal of Public Health, and Public Culture, among other venues. I was an Infosys Member at the Institute for Advanced Study from 2020-2021 and was elected an External Professor of the Santa Fe Institute in 2023.


BS, Physics, Duke University; PhD, Physics, University of Calgary


Koch B, Sainburg T, Geraldo Bastías P, Jiang S, Sun Y, Foster JG (forthcoming) Deep learning of potential outcomes. Sociological Methods & Research.

Foster JG (2023) From thin to thick: Toward a politics of human-compatible AI. Public Culture 10742593. https://doi.org/10.1215/08992363-10742593

Arseniev-Koehler A, Foster JG (2022) Machine learning as a model for cultural learning: Teaching an algorithm what it means to be fat. Sociological Methods & Research 51(4): 1484-1539.

Arseniev-Koehler A, Cochran S, Mays V, Chang KW, Foster JG (2022) Integrating topic modeling and word embedding to characterize violent deaths. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA. 119(10): e2108801119.

Koch B, Denton E, Hanna A, Foster JG (2021) Reduced, reused and recycled: The life of a dataset in machine learning research. NeurIPS 2021 Datasets & Benchmarks Track.Winner of NeurIPS 2021 Datasets & Benchmarks Best Paper Award.

Perry S, Carter A, Smolla M,Akçay E, Noebel S, Foster JG, Healy S (2021) Not by transmission alone: The role of invention in cultural evolution. Phil.Trans. Roy. Soc. B. 376: 20200049.

Evans JA, Foster JG (2019) Computation and the sociological imagination. Contexts 18(4): 10-15.

Foster JG, Evans JA (2019) Promiscuous inventions: Modeling cultural evolution with multiple inheritance. Beyond the Meme, Minnesota Studies in Philosophy of Science, Vol 22, eds. Love A, Wimsatt W (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis).

Foster JG (2018) Culture and computation: Steps to a Probably Approximately Correct theory of culture. Poetics 68: 144-154.

Foster JG, Cartmill EA (2018) Managing the multiplicity of meaning. Co-operative Engagements in Intertwined Semiosis: Essays in Honour of Charles GoodwinTartu Semiotics Library, Vol 19, ed. Favareau D (University of Tartu Press, Tartu).

Rzhetsky A, Foster JG, Foster IT, Evans JA (2015) Choosing experiments to accelerate collective discovery. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 112(47): 14569-14574.

Foster JG, Rzhetsky A, Evans JA (2015) Tradition and innovation in scientists’ research strategies. American Sociological Review 80(5): 875-908. Winner of 2016 Star-Nelkin Paper Award, ASA Section on Science, Knowledge, and Technology.

Evans JA, Foster JG (2011) Metaknowledge. Science 331(6018): 721-725.

Foster JG, Foster DV, Grassberger P, Paczuski M (2010) Edge direction and the structure of networks. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 107(24): 10815-10820.

Awards & Grants

2023-2026, External Professor, Santa Fe Institute

2021 Special Prize “for an exciting, dynamical embedding and applications of Transformers,” Science4cast Competition, IEEE Big Data

2021 NeurIPS 2021 Datasets & Benchmarks Best Paper Award

2020-2021, Infosys Member, School of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study

2016 Star-Nelkin Paper Award, ASA Section on Science, Knowledge, and Technology