Complicated system

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The Devil’s Advocate

Complicated systems: Unlike simple systems, complicated systems require interaction with autonomous agents whose specific behaviour is beyond the user's control, and might be intended to defeat the user’s objective, but whose range of behaviour is entirely deterministic. Each autonomous agent’s range of possible actions and reactions can be predicted in advance. At least, in theory.

For example chess — or, for that matter, any boardgame or sport.

Complicated systems therefore benefit from skilled management and some expertise to operate: a good chess player will do better than a poor one — a school-leaver from Bucharest with plenty of coffee and a playbook on her lap probably isn’t the droid you’re looking for — but in the right hands can usually be managed without catastrophe, though the degree of success will be a function of user’s skill and expertise.

You know you have a complicated system when it cleaves to a comprehensive set of axioms and rules, and thus it is a matter of making sure that the proper models are being used for the situation at hand. Chess and Alpha Go are complicated, but not complex, systems. You can “force-solve” them, at least in theory.[1] They are entirely predictable, determinative and calculable, given enough processing power. They’re tame, not wicked problems.

In which the curmudgeonly old sod puts the world to rights.

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Zero-sum games, when one player wins and one loses, are generally complicated systems, even though practically solving them may be extremely hard, and (like Chess and Go) they may not yet have been solved. Hence there is room for expertise to make a difference: if part of the system is a player just like you, only intent in getting the opposite outcome, then who wins will be a determined by who most skilfully uses the rules of the game to her advantage. A chess grandmaster will do better against IBM’s Dr Watson[2] than will a novice, though there is always the chance you’ll play so badly that all the wiseguy’s sophisticated strategies fail and you walk her into an accidental checkmate when all you were trying to do is line your prawns and your horseys up because they looked nice that way. In a simple system, an expert has little advantage over a novice will a set of instructions.

Artificial intelligence and computing power is pretty good at handling complicated systems.


  1. Do you hear that, Daniel Susskind?
  2. Or whatever the hell it was called.