Herbert Simon

By: Tor Aarestad
June 15, 2010

One of the fathers of Artificial Intelligence and a prophet of the church of rationality, HERBERT SIMON (1916–2001) spent most of his working life chronicling humanity’s predictable missteps. Simon began his career with a tract on the operation of bureaucracies with the dreary but instructive title Administrative Behavior. He took the stripped-down models of classical economics and organizational theory and added complexity and empiricism, describing the fallibility of human agents forced to choose in a tangle of uncertain outcomes and incomplete information. Among the results of his research were the concepts of “bounded rationality” and “satisficing,” the latter describing the “good-enough” decision-making (or settling) that describes much of human behavior, rather than the optimizing decisions of many economic models. This began Simon’s fascination with the possibilities of process rationality and heuristics, the tools of improving rational decision making in contexts of great complexity and uncertainty. Along with two colleagues, Simon created the Logic Theorist, called the “first Artificial Intelligence program”, and continued to work with AI until his death, predicting that a computer could win a Nobel Prize and talking smack about historic scientists (viz Kepler) compared to the scientific capabilities of modern computers. To Simon, good heuristics are central to near-optimal decision making, and well-designed computers are heuristic-machines par excellence. These manifold interests in rationality, economic behavior, bureaucratic structures and artificial intelligence left a huge mark in the hard social sciences — winning him a Nobel Prize in 1978 in economics, and making him perhaps the forefather of modern management consulting. If John Connor does come back, he’ll be gunning for Herbert Simon.

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What do you think?

  1. Thanks Josh. Simon predicted in 1957 that a computer would beat the world chess champion within ten years — he was off by a few decades, but his faith in computers as innovative problem solvers remained unshaken.

  2. The issue of Artificial Intelligence is a smoke screen used by materialists who believe only matter exists and mind is an illusion. A belief in non-physical entities must be presupposed in order to have rational thought. If mind doesn’t exist the question could never be meaningfully asked. Further more the rules of logic are non-physical entities that are loved and used by those seeking to disprove the existence of non-physical entities.

    “AI” seems middlebrow or lowbrow to me. That’s why James Cameron loves it so much, he’s the modern day king of middlebrow.

    A computer winning a chess match just proves chess is not a thinking game. Mastering chess is like trying to add faster than a calculator — pointless. If a computer wins the Nobel Prize it would only prove you don’t have to have intelligence to win the Nobel Prize and by the looks of some past winners, I’d say that’s a safe bet. It’s like how drum machines prove what everyone in a band already suspects: Drummers can’t think.

    “AI” is just a logical belief flowing from materialist presuppositions. The real question is not whether machines can think, but whether man has a soul.

  3. Great comment, Sickmon. Agree with much of what you say, though Herbert Simon isn’t middlebrow (if that’s what you’re suggesting); he’s a highbrow gone off the rails.

  4. Simon certainly isn’t middlebrow, but AI has certainly found a place in the middlebrow cultural imaginary. Sickmon, I get some of what you’re saying, but some of it seems a bit unclear to me. The term intelligence can often be deployed in debates to reference different things. You seem to argue for the position that if “intelligence” just means computational facility, then screw that. I don’t think Simon was anti-humanist really, just kind of socially awkward around the humanities.

    Simon’s real genius was in recognizing that the world was too complex for people to act in as they might act if they knew everything, and if they could see all that might happen. It is useful then, in accomplishing big things in this complex, institutionally-intensive world, to realize the ways in which people get stuck, act irrationally (in retrospect), behave counter to their interests, or are constrained. Institutional design or social interventions are one response to these predictable failings. Another is to use computers as a technology to assist in problem solving. Simon saw complex problem solving as a social need, whose resolution could free people up to be with their families, make art, burnish their souls and such.

    I can’t speak to drummers, but can’t they kindly slow down the tempo a bit when the guitarist falls behind in a way that that heartless drum machine can’t?

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