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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
HTML EMBED:
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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

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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