Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Why Complex Systems Do Better Without Us

ACM Technews posted this interesting thought on systems research this week:

Why Complex Systems Do Better Without Us
New Scientist (08/06/08) Vol. 199, No. 2668, P. 28; Buchanan, Mark

Research by Swiss Federal Institute of Technology physicist Dirk Helbing suggests humans' desire to force complex systems into a regular, predictable model is misguided, and a much better strategy is to cede a certain degree of control and let systems work out solutions on their own. "You have to learn to use the system's own self-organizing tendencies to your advantage," he argues. Helbing and Stefan Lammer at Germany's Technical University of Dresden have considered whether traffic lights could be engineered to reduce congestion by giving the devices the means to adapt their behavior rather than have engineers shape traffic into patterns that seem favorable. The researchers have found that traffic lights, when provided with some simple operating rules and left alone to organize their own solution, can do a better job. Helbing and Lammer have crafted a mathematical model that assumes a fluid-like movement for traffic and describes what happens at intersections. The researchers make the lights at each intersection responsive to increasing traffic pressure via sensors. Lights that only adapt to conditions locally might give rise to problems further away, and to address this the researchers have engineered a scheme in which neighboring lights share their information so that what occurs around one light can affect how others respond, preventing the formation of long traffic jams. Helbing and Lammer have shown through simulation that this setup should substantially reduce overall travel times and keep no one waiting at a light too long, even though the lights' behavior runs counter to accepted human concepts of efficiency.

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