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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