Herbert Simon’s Ant

Here’s a metaphor that comes to me by way of Nobel laureate and Turing award recipient Herbert Simon.

Imagine watching an ant on the beach. Its path looks complicated. It zigs and zags to avoid rocks and twigs. Very reminiscent of complex behavior — what an intelligent ant!

Except an ant is just a simple machine. It wants to return to its nest, so it starts moving in a straight line. When it encounters an object, it zigs to avoid it. Repeat until the destination is reached.

Trying to simulate the path itself would be difficult, but simulating the ant is easy. It’s maybe a half-dozen rules.

The point of this parable is to illustrate the interaction between the environment and perceived complexity. Lots of complex looking things are really the result of the territory, the shape of the beach, and not the agent, in this case, an ant.

But, of course, with this metaphor, I’m not really talking about ants. I’m talking about people. How much of the complexity of human behavior is really the product of the environment?

Consider yesterday’s post. Zach Weinersmith wrote this about writer’s block:

If you can’t write, read more. In my experience, writer’s block is not a condition, but a result. Lots of people seem to think they can play video games 12 hours a day, then one day happen upon a great idea. It doesn’t work that way. You’ve got to put in time on input if you want good output.

Now, what’s so interesting about this? Well, it’s a lot like that ant. Humans can’t just sit and intuit something complicated — we have to go and engage with the complexity of our environment.

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