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Keywords: Complexity theory, artificial intelligence
Title: Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos
Author: M. Mitchell Waldrop
Publisher: PenguinISBN: 0140179682
Verdict: Superb introduction. Highly recommended.
The main thrust of science in the last three or four hundred years has been reductionist. You take a phenomenon, strip away any extraneous details, anything messy and unmanageable and, applying a good dose of maths, create a theory to explain and predict. It works of course, science has progressed enormously and we see the fruits of science in applications all around us. However this focus on reducing a theory doen to its bare essentials means that for the most part science is no good at dealing with many real world problems.
An example is the economy. Even with the enormous computing power at our disposal, and with reams of mathematical formalisms, the economy defies scientific understanding and prediction. Most social problems are the same, there are simply too many variables, too many unexpected events for them to be amenable to scientific explanation.
Complexity takes a different approach, and it forces us to view the world differently. Rather than reduce a problem it accepts that the world is meesy and unpredictable. A central idea of complexity theory is that behaviour emerges from the interaction of many components. An economy is an example of a complex system, and it's behaviour emerges from the interactions of millions of 'agents' (investors, capitalists, workers, consumers etc).
An ant colony is another complex system. Each ant is relatively stupid, it obeys a few simple rules, but when you put thousands of them together you get the complex, adaptive and intelligent behavious of the whole colony.
Taking this view means that science can at last begin to study phenomena that effect us all. We can start to model social phenomena using computers that simulate the actions of thousands of autnomous agents (yep, ants, bacteria and you and I...)
This book is a superb introduction to the subject. It's well written, gets across the key ideas and introduces the men and women who are driving the subject forward. Anybody interested in science, politics and ought to read this book.