Hard Problems in Social Science

I came across these short talks on hard problems in the social sciences, modeled after the famous Hilbert problems. I am not sure if the analogy holds under strict scrutiny (Is there a Hilbert today who can command the same influence in such a diverse area? Is there even a cohesive community at whom these challenges can be aimed?), but the talks were certainly very interesting and thought provoking.

Clearly, some talks/questions are closer to home than others but even the ones that seemed initially unrelated are thought provoking. The ones that came closest include a talk by Susan Carey on the problem of concept learning – something that is directly on the critical path of intelligent autonomous robotics. I had already read some of her papers before but this talk gave a concise summary and highlighted a connection to human learning in the classroom, something I rarely think about. Taleb’s question was the well known one about how to design robust strategies in the face of ‘black swans’. Despite his notoriety and (as I am told) penchant for personal rants, he managed to be quite constructive in the way he delineated the problem.  This is a problem that does show up quite centrally in our work – how do you learn policies for an a priori unknown open world. Some others were interesting too – Ann Swidler asks what makes a good theory of institutions (e.g., how and why exactly does al-Sistani come to have such enourmous influence in Afghanistan, even more so than the people with the guns or the money)? Her hypotheses were quite interesting and may turn out to be relevant as we wonder how to make resilient organizations of artificial agents!

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