Games and economic misbehaviour

Tom James @ 03-08-2009

wolfram_fractalsGeorge Dyson has an excellent and compelling essay on game theory, economics, information theory, computer science, banking, finance, technology, and John von Neumann:

We are surrounded by codes (some Turing-universal) that make copies of themselves, and by physical machines that spawn virtual machines that in turn spawn demand for more physical machines. Some digital sequences code for spreadsheets, some code for music, some code for operating systems, some code for sprawling, metazoan search engines, some code for proteins, some code for the gears used in numerically-controlled gear-cutting machines, and, increasingly, some code for DNA belonging to individuals who serve as custodians and creators of more code. “It is easier to write a new code than to understand an old one,” von Neumann warned.

The monograph over on Edge discusses von Neumann’s intellectual antecendants and the development of game theory and statistical modelling. It also includes some interesting commentary on our recent economic difficulties. Definitely worth a read.

[image from kevindooley on flickr]

Psychohistory in the real world

Tom James @ 28-07-2009

crowdResearchers at Indiana University believe that it may be possible to create a real-life version of Isaac Asimov’s concept of psychohistory:

Much as meteorologists predict the path and intensity of hurricanes, Indiana University’s Alessandro Vespignani believes we will one day predict with unprecedented foresight, specificity and scale such things as the economic and social effects of billions of new Internet users in China and India, or the exact location and number of airline flights to cancel around the world in order to halt the spread of a pandemic.

Psychohistory as described by Isaac Asimov holds that “while one cannot foresee the actions of a particular individual, the laws of statistics as applied to large groups of people could predict the general flow of future events.”

This certainly seems similar to the ideas of reality mining discussed here:

Vespignani writes that advances in complex networks theory and modeling, along with access to new data, will enable humans to achieve true predictive power in areas never before imagined. This capability will be realized as the one wild card in the mix — the social behavior of large aggregates of humans — becomes more definable through progress in data gathering, new informatics tools and increases in computational power.

It is an exciting direction, and offers the possibility of a black-swan style technological breakthrough. With improved data, through things like spimes and ubiquitous computing, combined with improved data processing techniques and communications there exists the possibility for a new and powerful way of studying, monitoring, and even controlling social and technological developments with precision.

[via Next Big Future][image from woodleywonderworks on flickr]

Bacterial computers to solve complex mathematics problems

Tom James @ 24-07-2009

bacteriaWe’ve seen viruses used to help treat cancer, and help building electrical components, now bacteria are being used to solve hitherto intractable mathematics problems:

Imagine you want to tour the 10 biggest cities in the UK, starting in London (number 1) and finishing in Bristol (number 10). The solution to the Hamiltonian Path Problem is the the shortest possible route you can take.

This simple problem is surprisingly difficult to solve. There are over 3.5 million possible routes to choose from, and a regular computer must try them out one at a time to find the shortest. Alternatively, a computer made from millions of bacteria can look at every route simultaneously. The biological world also has other advantages. As time goes by, a bacterial computer will actually increase in power as the bacteria reproduce.

These developments in synthetic biology are really amazing: it is just another example of how researchers are looking at pre-existing biological structures to solve problems (albeit somewhat abstract problems in this case) instead of building technologies from scratch.

[from the Guardian][image from kaibara87 on flickr]

Jamitons – the math of phantom traffic jams

Paul Raven @ 23-06-2009

traffic jamHave you ever wondered what causes those seemingly cause-less traffic jams the occur pretty much anywhere with a reasonable density of motor vehicles? Sure you have – but you probably didn’t have the mathematical chops to investigate further, unlike the geeks at MIT:

The mathematics of such traffic jams are strikingly similar to the equations that describe detonation waves produced by explosions, said Aslan Kasimov, a lecturer in MIT’s Department of Mathematics. Realizing this allowed the reseachers to solve traffic jam equations that were first theorized in the 1950s. The MIT researchers even came up with a name for this kind of gridlock – “jamiton.” It’s a riff on “soliton,” a term used in math and physics to desribe a self-sustaining wave that maintains its shape while moving.

The equations MIT came up with are similar to those used to describe fluid mechanics, and they model traffic jams as a self-sustaining wave.

“We wanted to describe this using a mathematical model similar to that of fluid flow,” Kasimov said.

The researchers hit upon the equation after an experiment by Japanese researchers demonstrated the formation of jamitrons on a circular road. In that experiment, drivers were instructed to travel 30 kilometers an hour (18.6 mph) while maintaining a constant distance between cars. It didn’t take long before disruptions occurred and phantom jams formed. Denser traffic brought quicker jams.

The MIT team found speed, traffic density and other factors can determine conditions that will lead to a jamiton and how quickly it will spread. Once the jam forms, the researchers say, drivers have no choice but to wait for it to clear. The new model could lead to roads designed with sufficient capacity to keep traffic density below the point at which a jamiton can form.

Now, after reading that article I found myself thinking “wouldn’t some sort of peer-to-peer traffic management system be better than building bigger roads?” So imagine how smug I felt when this article turned up a few days later:

The hope, of course, is that by understanding traffic jams we can learn to prevent them. Tom Vanderbilt, in his authoritative book Traffic, describes a simple experiment performed by the Washington Department of Transportation that involved a liter of rice, a plastic funnel, and a glass beaker. When the rice was poured into the beaker all at once, it took 40 seconds for the funnel to empty; the density of jostling grains impeded the flow. However, when the grains were poured in a gradual stream, it took only 27 seconds for the rice to pass through. What seemed slower actually turned out to be 30 percent faster. This helps explain why traffic engineers are so eager to install red lights on highway onramps: By slowing traffic before it enters the concrete funnel, they hope to prevent the road from exceeding its critical density.

I’d be willing to go out on a limb here and suggest that while vehicles are still driven manually by fallible and inherently selfish human beings, traffic jams are inevitable. The only way to truly control the side-effects of human behaviour are to take them out of the picture entirely – and while there are very few situations where I’d advocate such a thing, road traffic is one of them. [image by timsnell]


Paul Raven @ 01-06-2009

It’s time for another fresh piece of fiction here at Futurismic, and this one’s something quite unique. “Awakening in Six Parts” is a hugely immersive and somewhat gonzo tale about dreams, mathematics and relationships, set in a tomorrow whose strangeness only emphasises its plausibility. Karen M Roberts has created something that is mysterious and revelatory at once; this story has been haunting my own sleep since I first read it, and I hope it does the same for you. Enjoy!

Awakening in Six Parts

by Karen M. Roberts


It wasn’t precisely forbidden for a husband and a wife to discuss their dreams, but it wasn’t the sort of thing decent people did. Max’s coffee cup rattled against the saucer when Claudette raised the topic over breakfast.

“I think my night owl is defective.” Inside her teacup, some leaves had escaped the strainer. She rocked the cup in her hands, watching them swirl.

Without lifting his eyes from the editorials page, Max said, “Did you run it through the diagnostic programme?”

“It flew off before I had the chance. But the dreams, they were… ” Claudette broke off, unable to make sense of the vivid and impossible images that crowded on her tongue. “Do you ever have unsettling dreams?” She peered across the laminate tabletop. Max raised the page of newsprint closer to his nose.

The lucid dreams provided by the night owls were realistic and recurring, a secondary life experienced while the body rested. Who had designed the owls no one knew; they had simply arrived, winging down with the gift of pleasure without consequence, of fulfillment without price. Claudette had never spoken to Max about her dream husbands, and she had no desire to know about the fantasy women with whom he spent his nights. Continue reading “NEW FICTION: AWAKENING IN SIX PARTS by Karen M Roberts”

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