Design and the “Artificial”

[Or, why a book by a Nobel Prize-winning economist that most people think is about artificial intelligence is actually about design.]

If you looked on Amazon, you’d have the impression that Herbert Simon’s The Sciences of the Artificial was about artificial intelligence (AI). The product description calls it “Herbert Simon’s classic work on artificial intelligence”. And the featured review by George A Miller (who write the 7+/-2 paper) says:

“People sometimes ask me what they should read to find out about artificial intelligence. Herbert Simon’s book The Sciences of the Artificial is always on the list I give them. Every page issues a challenge to conventional thinking, and the layman who digests it well will certainly understand what the field of artificial intelligence hopes to accomplish.”

But I don’t think Simon thought Sciences of the Artifical (SotA) is about AI. More than anything else, I think Simon thought SotA was about design. In fact, it’s about exactly what we usually mean when we talk about design.

Although SotA talks about design in the way that I’ve generally understood, Simon starts from an unfamiliar space. At the end of a long dense chapter on strategies for searching “large combinatorial” spaces (which will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken a basic AI course) Simon writes:

[…] the theory of design is [the] general theory of search. (p83)

Which is kind of a strange idea. Initially. Simon’s argument is that design is a way of looking for good solutions (which is subtly different to saying that design is problem solving). When I first read SotA I though that Simon meant design was making choices in a pre-defined space. On a second reading I realised he meant that each individual choice in a design process was made with awareness of the range of possibilities currently available. Simon links awareness of the range of possibilities for action with a strong case for sketching:

At each stage in the design process, the partial design is reflected in [the design] documents serves as a major stimulus for suggesting to the designer what he should attend to next. (p92)

As well as being about design in the small, Simon is unafraid to make very broad claims and names quite a few of the professions as “design”:

Schools of engineering as well as schools of architecture, business, education, art and medicine, are all centrally concerned with the process of design. (p111)

This would have been quite bold in 1969 and is actually quite prescient given the recent (re)discovery of “design thinking” which regards its purview as encompassing products, urban design, business strategy, medical practice and services of every sort.

With “design” defined so broadly as to encompass a large number of the professions, and a great many everyday activities too, Simon then manages the remarkable feat of defining what design is.

The artificial world is centred precisely on this interface between the inner and outer environments; it is concerned with attaining goals by adapting the former to the later. The proper study of the artificial is the way in which that adaptation of means to environments is brought about — and central to that is the process of design itself. (p113)

That is, design is the process by which the the adaptation of the “inner environment” to the “outer environment” is achieved. (At this point I had to visit the index to find out what the inner and outer environments are.)

An artifact can be thought of as a meeting point — an “interface” in today’s terms — between and “inner” environment, the substance and organisation of the artifact itself and the “outer” environment, the surroundings in which it operates. If the inner environment is appropriate to the outer environment, or vice versa, the artifact will serve its intended purpose. (p6)

I think that Simon was making the argument that there are the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, etc) and then there are the parts of the world that people have made which are investigated through the “artificial” sciences — economics, (cognitive) psychology, and so on. But he needed a way to tie the artificial sciences together with some sort of generalised method. The way he did that was to call that method, whatever it is, “design”. Simon even sets out a detailed “curriculum for design” which is, even today, only partially taught (in my experience) in design schools.

And then, having come at design almost from first principals, Simon has one more ninja move up his sleeve. He introduces, in a limited way, the idea of “complexity”. Complexity, I think, could be the something that completes and complements design and really lets it become a way thinking — a way of approaching the world. But that’s whole ‘nother post (at least!).

Sciences of the Artificial isn’t the easiest read. Simon was a career academic and spent most of his career in economics and cognitive psychology, fields not known for their plain language. But, as a tour through the mind of possibly the only Nobel Prize winner to turn his attention to design, it’s remarkable. If you’re game for a challenging book or if you’ve read SotA before, I’d love to know what you think.


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