How to Take Control of an Unruly System (Like Your Brain)

March 22, 2014 Updated: March 23, 2014

All complex systems—whether they are found in the human body, in financial markets, or in social situations—actually fall into just three basic categories, in terms of how they can be controlled.

That’s the conclusion Justin and Derek Ruths, both professors and brothers, reached after surveying the inputs and outputs and the critical control points in a wide range of systems that appear to function in completely different ways. The critical control points are the parts of a system that you have to control in order to make it do whatever you want—not dissimilar to the strings you use to control a puppet.

“When controlling a cell in the body, for example, these control points might correspond to proteins that we can regulate using specific drugs,” says Justin Ruths, a professor at Singapore University of Technology and Design. “But in the case of a national or international economic system, the critical control points could be certain companies whose financial activity needs to be directly regulated.”

One grouping, for example, put organizational hierarchies, gene regulation, and human purchasing behavior together, in part because in each it is hard to control individual parts of the system in isolation.

Another grouping includes social networks, such as groups of friends (whether virtual or real) and neural networks (in the brain), where the systems allow for relatively independent behavior.

The final group includes things like food systems, electrical circuits, and the internet, all of which function basically as closed systems where resources circulate internally.

Referring to these groupings, Derek Ruths from McGill University says: “While our framework does provide insights into the nature of control in these systems, we’re also intrigued by what these groupings tell us about how very different parts of the world share deep and fundamental attributes in common—which may help unify our understanding of complexity and of control.”

“What we really want people to take away from the research at this point is that we can control these complex and important systems in the same way that we can control a car,” says Justin Ruths. “And that our work is giving us insight into which parts of the system we need to control and why. Ultimately, at this point we have developed some new theory that helps to advance the field in important ways, but it may still be another five to ten years before we see how this will play out in concrete terms.”

Their study is published in the journal Science.

Source: McGill University

Republished from Futurity.org under Creative Commons license 3.0.