Systems and complexity

Can engineers and scientists ever master “complexity”?

John Horgan writes in Scientific American in the leadup to the launch of a Center for Complex Systems & Enterprises at his school, Stevens Institute of Technology.

Horgan reveals that he jumped at the chance to make concluding comments on complexity at the launch, and advises that he hoped to make these points:

  1. Researchers have never been able to agree on what complexity is.
  2. Previous attempts to master complexity have undergone a boom-bust cycle.
  3. A key insight to emerge from chaos theory is that many complex systems are inherently unpredictable, because infinitesimal causes can have enormous consequences.
  4. Complex social systems are especially hard to model.
  5. In the heyday of chaos and complexity in the 1980s and 1990s, researchers prophesied that increasingly powerful computers would lead to increasingly precise models of complex systems. Those forecasts were much too optimistic, as the struggles of artificial intelligence and artificial life have demonstrated.
  6. Engineers hope to master complexity through innovation, but new technologies can create more problems than they solve.

His take-away message is:

Engineers and scientists have demonstrated their ability to invent and manage extraordinarily complex systems, which provide us with energy, transportation, food and water, health care, entertainment, communication, shelter, security. We must, and will, find ways to further minimize the downside and maximize the upside of civilization. But given the history of complexity research, our can-do optimism should always be tempered by skepticism and caution.


Also published on Medium.

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