Friday, March 02, 2007

It's all just a game

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, game theory, statistics, mechanics, physics

Tom Siegfried opens the preface to his new book by pointing out the Al Qaeda (however one spells it) not only means "foundation" or "fundament", but that the first book Isaac Asimov's most famous series, Foundation, is titled al-Qaeda in Arabic translation. Perhaps the jihadists are trying to tell us something...whoever has an ear, let him hear.

The backbone of the Foundation series is psychohistory, a future science that makes accurate long-term social predictions, by treating human actions statistically, as if people were gas molecules in a large volume of gas with a temperature and pressure. Mr. Siegfried refers continually to Foundation and its psychohistorian, Hari Seldon, in A Beautiful Math: John Nash, Game Theory, and the Modern Quest for a Code of Nature.

He refers at least as much to John Nash, the schizophrenic mathematician depicted in the movie A Beautiful Mind. The film barely touches on the math magic that yielded a Nobel Prize for Nash in 1994. This author seeks to remedy that deficit. What was it that Nash did, that was so great? We find in the movie that all the work he is shown performing, whether at Rand corporation or in his much-cluttered office, was imaginary or based on imaginary requests by imaginary agents. So what did he DO?

What he did was lay the foundation for psychohistory. Probably Asimov knew that. Though Nash's Prize was in Economics, the "equilibrium" method for creating an optimum "game theory" strategy is applicable everywhere that human needs and human decisions coincide. To help us understand all this, Siegfried covers a lot of ground, from Adam Smith (who knew Smith's work was based on game theory, though the term was not yet coined) to Von Neumann, to Freud, Quetelet, and Pascal; finally to Von Neumann again, for his work puts Pascal's wager (wagering against God has infinite possible consequences, so always wager FOR God) in context.

In the end, game theory and statistical mechanics are seen to share the same math formulations, so the tools of physics are now available to probe social and economic behavior.

Will game theorists be able to develop a true psychohistory? The answer will hinge on the extent that we can know enough about people's culture, or perhaps on a proof that culture can be viewed in a way that eliminates its influence. Right now, we're in a position of trying to predict the distance a ball will fly, hearing only the crack of the bat, echoing off nearby buildings. A robust tool, given not just the sound but the positions, shapes, and compositions of the echoing buildings and grassland between, could do so.

The implications are fascinating. I find it analogous to "artificial" intelligence. Post-human computer power has been predicted, with uniform failure, since before Babbage drew up the plans for his Difference Engine. The more we learn, both of computing methods and of neurology and neuropsychology, the more we learn that the average human brain is more complex than the entire universe would be if there were no humans (or aliens, should there be any). We have a ways to go. The road is interesting, a journey perhaps worth more than the arriving.

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