Random Samples

Cybersocieties: A New Tool for Science

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Science  01 Nov 1996:
Vol. 274, Issue 5288, pp. 727
DOI: 10.1126/science.274.5288.727f

Artificial-life researchers are making a bid to get out of the curiosity shop and into the tool bags of working social scientists with a computer model of social interactions that one of them, Robert Axtell, calls “the most comprehensive version of artificial life for human societies yet.”

In a demonstration at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, D.C., Axtell and Joshua M. Epstein, complex-systems theorists at Brookings, wowed an audience including social scientists, policy analysts, and economists with a series of computer-generated movies depicting social phenomena, such as trade between communities, evolving in a gridlike virtual environment. Each evolution in the “Sugarscape” model-so-called because its staple virtual commodity is digital sugar-begins with a population of dotlike agents who reproduce, burn up resources (sugar) at various rates, engage in trade, and follow whatever rules the designers have set up for interacting with each other or the environment.

The initial goal, the Brookings analysts say, is to see how different community interactions in different environments lead to “emergent structures” such as segregated populations, cultural assimilation, or runaway population growth. Sugarscape indeed can mimic life well: When the modelers program agents to engage in trade, for example, the population booms, but the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Outside experts say that computer models like Sugarscape can serve as research tools for demonstrating the societal effects of different mixes of economic conditions like free trade, human behavior like military aggression, and environmental factors like the depletion of resources. Ironically, though, warns economist Thomas Schelling of the University of Maryland, a pioneer in modeling social structures, the more complex and therefore realistic the model becomes, the harder it will be to discern cause-effect relationships-just like life.

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