Resist Simplifying the Complexity of Complex Systems

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

Albert Einstein

When looking at the world there are lots of things that are beyond the limits of human cognition. Not only do we not understand these complex systems but it is physically impossible for us to ever understand them. This is information theory, we cannot encode more information than we have space to store it without some loss of information.

The human memory is good at lossfully encoding information in the billions of neurons and dendrites. But there are very real limits. For instance, it would be impossible for me to losslessly add another persons memories into my own without also doubling the size of my brain. It is impossible to encode the information without the physical space to store it.

Complex systems such as how the brain works are possible for humans to understand only through the help of simplifications. We can’t possibly track billions of interacting neurons mentally the way we might be able to visualise 2 + 3, so we reduce the brain to regions and sub-regions. The value of sub-dividing the brain into regions is not because it simplifies the complexity of billions of neurons, but because it adds complexity to the brain as a single mass of grey matter.

Our inability to completely understand other people results in compromises. Instead of taking time to get to know people at work, HR often advocates for personality tests. By putting labels on people’s personalities, we believe we can then extrapolate and make assumptions about them. This is inherently inhuman. Rather than having deep conversations and personal relationships we can do a quick test online by ourselves, register the result with HR, and that data point can be used to direct our future opportunities. Like a distopian sci-fi thriller.

The world is filled with complex systems that are too complex for humans to really grasp intuitively. Ecology and Climate are complex systems with billions of interactions – humans cannot apply intuition and common sense to gloss over these complexities. Traffic and stock markets also are complex systems for which intuition and common sense often fail us.

Traffic is a common topic of conversation. Everyone has their opinion on fixes for the congestion problems. The evidence shows that you can’t build roads to fix congestion – major roadworks projects around the world just provide temporary relief – see Boston after the big dig, Houston’s grand parkway. There are rarely simple solutions to complex problems. Rarely are complex solutions palatable to those in power. If we were able to build a complex city simulation and model growth against zoning changes, tolls, bike lanes, road works, and taxes, etc. maybe we could find some optimal solution – but note that even optimal solutions have trade-offs. Fixing traffic might require making single family homes illegal to improve density. It would be impossible to create an optimal solution that everyone is happy with. To make things more complex, majority rule doesn’t always result in ethical decisions – deciding how to decide can also be a complex system.

There is a natural desire for humans to try and simplify things, or see simple solutions to things, and then be frustrated when they are not done. We see road workers on seemingly perpetual coffee breaks and complain about it as if the project manager who spends all their time trying to keep the worksite working hasn’t considered some simple fix.

I like to think that there are some complex systems that require complex solutions which are beyond human understanding. That’s Ok. Accepting the limits of the human mind is the first step to transcending them. Computers provide the tools to augment our memory (hard drives) and thought processes (AI). In that regard it seems inevitable that AIs will produce answers that we do not, and perhaps can not understand.

As Einstein suggests, we should strive to make things simple as possible. But in some instances that will still be too complex for us to understand within a single human brain. In those cases we need to be careful not to push simplifying things past the limit. We should attempt to recognise and resist the desire to simplify things that are inherently complex. Embrace the complexity.