ISAAC ASIMOV’S “PSYCHOHISTORY” GETS A STEP CLOSER TO ...
Years ago I read the famous Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels. While this is not the place for a detailed exploration of the themes of those books - I plan to do a members' paper on this topic and am in fact in the process of writing it now - it is worth noting its central premise. In the books, a mathematician, Hari Seldon, invents a technique of modeling aggregate human behavior, both in the past and present, and making future predictions of aggregate behavior. He does so at a time when the galactic empire is entering decline, and some in the corridors of power know this. Seldon calls his superlative mathematical technique "psychohistory," and with it, he models a method of shortening the "dark ages" that his science predicts will follow the period of the empire's collapse. Needless to say, the Galactic Imperial Powers that Be want to get their hands on Seldon's technique.
Well, social engineering of the sort envisioned by Asimov, writing in the 1950s and 1960s, when econophysics was first becoming a viable technique of analysis of aggregate group behavior, has taken another huge leap forward, and I am indebted to Mr. V.T. for pointing this one out to me:
Note that the application of Barbasi's techniques have already, according to the article, paid dividends in market analysis, medicine, and interestingly enough, spycraft. Barbasi points out the jkey to his technique: (1) model the system, and (2) predict its behavior. Notably, it is a physicist doing this sort of analysis, and others are applying the technique. And the key, again, is coming from quantum mechanics, were the motions of individual particles cannot be predicted, but the aggregate motions can be, since they fall into statistical patterns.
A key to Barabasi's analysis is bound to be non-equilibrium conditions, as is indeed hinted in the article when cell phone companies contacted Barabasi to model customer behavior on when they were likely to switch providers, and that implies open systems (one cell company vs. another).
Barabasi, like Asimov's fictional Hari Seldon, is alive to the dangers:
"The first breakthroughs will most likely take place in medicine. By identifying control nodes in cell growth systems, scientists could return mature cells to their embryonic state, creating a new source of stem cells. 'Some diseases are all about lack of control,' Barabási says. 'If you were able to gain control over them at the cellular or neuronal level, you might be able to cure the disease.'
"Control can be used for ill as well as good, of course. Marketers could learn how to better manipulate consumers, and governments could develop new techniques to cow citizens. It’s up to us, Barabási says, to define how control should be applied and how it shouldn’t be. “What we have to realize is that control is a natural progression of understanding processes,” he says. 'But control is a question of will, and will can be controlled by laws. We have to come together as a society to figure out how far we can push it.'"
Asimov must be smiling down, for he saw decades ago the possibilities that the mathematical modeling of quantum mechanics had for other fields, including that most enigmatic of them all: human behavior.
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