Econ Extra Credit with David Brancaccio

Robots use game theory to understand how we think

David Brancaccio and Rose Conlon Apr 30, 2020
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Robots are helping hospital staff manage the influx of COVID-19 patients. Pictured: An Indonesian technician listens to a robot known as Amy during a simulation on assisting medical teams. Adek Berry/AFP via Getty Images
Econ Extra Credit with David Brancaccio

Robots use game theory to understand how we think

David Brancaccio and Rose Conlon Apr 30, 2020
Robots are helping hospital staff manage the influx of COVID-19 patients. Pictured: An Indonesian technician listens to a robot known as Amy during a simulation on assisting medical teams. Adek Berry/AFP via Getty Images
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This is part of our “Econ Extra Credit” project, where we read an introductory economics textbook provided by the nonprofit Core Econ together with our listeners.


Robots are doing their part during the COVID-19 pandemic. They whiz around our hospitals and grocery stores, taking patient temperatures, sanitizing high-touch surfaces and restocking shelves — and they help minimize the amount of human contact required to accomplish it all.

Part of a robot’s job is navigating around the people it encounters.

“The thing about these environments — our roads, our hospital floors — is that they’re not empty. They’re full of people. And so these robots need to choose their actions carefully,” said Anca Dragan, a computer science professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “Because you don’t want these robots bumping into people.”

Which means that robots need to get smart enough about our actions to anticipate what we’re going to do next. They need to understand us, to a certain extent — a tall order if we don’t always understand ourselves.

To model human behavior for these robots, engineers might start with the basic goals that motivate us as we move about public spaces: We walk down the produce aisle looking for asparagus, or we’re trying to get through an intersection before the light turns red.

“This is very much borrowed from economics, where we model human behavior there as responding to these incentives or utilities,” Dragan told “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio.

But our environment can influence our behavior. If a car turns into our lane up ahead, we might slow down, even if it means missing that light.

The easiest thing to do is what traditional economics does, which is to assume that people are these perfect little game players; they’re perfect optimizers; they’re perfect utility maximizers — and we’re not.

Anca Dragan

Enter game theory, a bedrock principle of behavioral economics.

“Game theory comes from the fact that neither the human nor the robot make decisions about what to do in pursuit of their goals in a vacuum. They’re aware of each other,” Dragan said. “There comes this tension: What people do influences what the robot does; what the robot does influences what people do. It’s this back and forth. It’s kind of a negotiation.”

The tools of game theory allow robots to account for the ways people might change course because of the presence or actions of others. And anticipating human action efficiently enables robots to make progress toward their own goals, too.

But game theory relies on rational actors — and sometimes, human behavior can seem irrational to the onlooker.

“One thing that makes all of this very challenging is that once you think about it in this game theoretic terms, the easiest thing to do is what traditional economics does, which is to assume that people are these perfect little game players; they’re perfect optimizers; they’re perfect utility maximizers — and we’re not. And behavioral economics has told us that for a long time,” Dragan said.

Take, for example, somebody who sells their stocks when the stock market crashes. Instead of assuming that they are fundamentally irrational, or they don’t care about losing money, we might instead consider the beliefs that could have motivated the action. We might need to tweak our model. Selling your stocks when the market is down appears far more rational if you think the market will fall even further in the future.

Dragan says it is important to teach robots how to follow this sort of reasoning.

“They should look at an action and not impart their own understanding of the world on the person, [or] expect the person to be rational under the robot’s view of the world,” she said.

It’ll help robots understand us better, so they can help us better.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

New COVID-19 cases and deaths in the U.S. are on the rise. How are Americans reacting?

Johns Hopkins University reports the seven-day average of new cases hit 68,767 on Sunday  — a record — eclipsing the previous record hit in late July during the second, summer wave of infection. A funny thing is happening with consumers though: Even as COVID-19 cases rise, Americans don’t appear to be shying away from stepping indoors to shop or eat or exercise. Morning Consult asked consumers how comfortable they feel going out to eat, to the shopping mall or on a vacation. And their willingness has been rising. Surveys find consumers’ attitudes vary by age and income, and by political affiliation, said Chris Jackson, who heads up polling at Ipsos.

How many people are flying? Has traveled picked up?

Flying is starting to recover to levels the airline industry hasn’t seen in months. The Transportation Security Administration announced on Oct. 19 that it’s screened more than 1 million passengers on a single day — its highest number since March 17. The TSA also screened more than 6 million passengers last week, its highest weekly volume since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While travel is improving, the TSA announcement comes amid warnings that the U.S. is in the third wave of the coronavirus. There are now more than 8 million cases in the country, with more than 219,000 deaths.

How are Americans feeling about their finances?

Nearly half of all Americans would have trouble paying for an unexpected $250 bill and a third of Americans have less income than before the pandemic, according to the latest results of our Marketplace-Edison Poll. Also, 6 in 10 Americans think that race has at least some impact on an individual’s long-term financial situation, but Black respondents are much more likely to think that race has a big impact on a person’s long-term financial situation than white or Hispanic/Latinx respondents.

Find the rest of the poll results here, which cover how Americans have been faring financially about six months into the pandemic, race and equity within the workplace and some of the key issues Trump and Biden supporters are concerned about.

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