Games 2016:

Three ‘beautiful minds’ in Maastricht

What is the role of consciousness in our lives? Why are multiple equilibria no problem at all? And how can we improve presidential elections, for example in the US? These three themes were addressed by three Nobel Laureates at Games 2016, the World Congress of the Game Theory Society, held at Maastricht University this week. The ‘Nobel session’ in the Theatre at the Vrijthof was one of the highlights of the programme, at least for several of the attendees. Professors Roger Myerson (left, University of Chicago, 2007 Nobel laureate), Robert J. Aumann (Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2005 Nobel laureate) and Eric Maskin (right, Harvard University, 2007 Nobel laureate) gave a little insight into their minds.

Game theory is a mathematical discipline that centres on decision-making. It deals with models of conflict, competition and cooperation, in which each party is focused on achieving its own individual aims. The societal importance of this field of research is evidenced by the large number of game theorists who have won a Nobel Prize in economics.  The most well-known game theorist is probably John Nash, on whose biography the film ‘A beautiful mind’ was based. “Which is actually a movie with a lot of mistakes in it”, chuckles PhD-researcher Tom Potoms from Université Libre Brussels. “I’m attending the conference because it’s one of the most important conferences in my field: game theory and household economics. One of my professors once said that economics and game theory are mathematical sociology, and that’s what these Nobel laureates are known for. They are my childhood heroes. Just like them, I’m also really interested in how economics and game theory can be applied best to society. When I first heard and read about them, it made me realise that I’m not alone in that. It’s great to hear them speak live now.”

Complex simplicity
The session started with an intense demonstration of optimal equilibrium by visual performance artist Nick Steur. He balanced nine stones of varying shape on small poles, creating art works live on stage. “I love complex simplicity”, he commented during the nerve wrecking demonstration. “If I’m not open to unexpected data, I will never find the right solution.”

After that, professor Aumann shared his views on the role of consciousness in our lives. With his unique and characteristic voice, he concluded that our consciousness is “the last great enigma of science. We have absolutely no idea!” But on the purpose it serves he was very clear: “It enables incentives to operate!” He pointed out how crucial consciousness is to the three basic drivers in life: nourishment, reproduction and self-preservation. “Most people don’t have sex for reproduction purposes! Pleasure is an incentive to have sex! So it is enabled by consciousness! Without consciousness incentives don’t work.”

Professor Myerson’s presentation was about multiple equilibria, illustrated with a game centering on the claiming or deferring of an apple by two people. “I think there is a bias among economists and game theorists about multiple equilibria. It seems to suggest a failure of economics.” He explained to the audience why he believed that this wasn’t the case.

The final talk was by professor Maskin, who announced he knew how to improve not only the US presidential elections, but all of the elections around the world. The big problem of the current system is the multiple candidates in the primaries, he argued.  “In the US, for example, the non-Trump-vote was split in the primaries. Given Donald Trumps extreme views, he might have been defeated in the first seventeen he won, if he would have had one rival instead of two. The use of plurality rule in these elections, where the candidate with the most votes wins, spoils the elections. Spoilers are candidates that can’t win, but spoil the outcome by running. That doesn’t seem right or democratic.” He plead for majority rule as an alternative, more democratic system, since there are only two candidates and the one with the most votes wins.  “This would have enabled people to identify an alternative to Donald Trump. In any event, majority rule seems a much better election method than those currently used, so why not consider it?”

More information is available at the conference website 

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