Society as a metaphor for systems-of-systems

Whereas it is possible to reason about a single autonomous system by making parallels to an individual, and in particular the functioning of the human brain, the natural analogy for systems-of-systems is a society. Here, I will make an initial characterization of this analogy.

One of the reasons why I am fascinated by the topic of systems-of-systems (SoS) is because it needs to mirror in a (socio-)technical system many of the characteristics of human life. It is, or should at least be, an interdisciplinary subject, where it is possible to draw on many fields of research and practice.

In many situations, the elements, or constituent systems, of an SoS have to be intelligent in some sense, in order to be able to adapt to changes in other parts of the SoS or in the external environment. This intelligence can be achieved by either using a socio-technical solution, where the technical parts interact with humans who provide the intelligence. Increasingly, we see a trend where the systems themselves become autonomous, and not relying on human input, at least not for all kinds of adaptation. Personally, I am currently involved in the field of autonomous vehicle, and my experience there is that when designing the autonomous systems, it is often useful to start by describe what happens in the socio-technical system. Then, the role of the human part of that socio-technical system is analyzed and codified, so that parts of it can be transferred to the technical system. Since the human is the model for what the system will do, the solution typically ends up including elements of what we believe are parts of the human mind, such as perception, world model, consciousness etc.

But when we move from single systems to SoS, the analogy is no longer with a single human, but with a group of interacting, collaborating people. If the system grows complex enough, the parallel is even to a society as a whole. One of the key thoughts I want to explore on this site is what that parallel looks like, and if and how it can be useful when designing SoS. When I write this, I do not know where this thought will lead, but my gut feeling is that it is so important that it makes sense to use it as a metaphor for the whole endeavor, and hence the name of the site became societies of systems.

As a starting point, I think it makes sense to look at what constitutes a society, just as the human mind was a reasonable starting point when looking at automating a socio-technical system. So what is a society? This is what Wikipedia has to say about that:

“A society is a group of people involved in persistent social interaction, or a large social grouping sharing the same geographical or social territory, typically subject to the same political authority and dominant cultural expectations. Societies are characterized by patterns of relationships (social relations) between individuals who share a distinctive culture and institutions; a given society may be described as the sum total of such relationships among its constituent members. In the social sciences, a larger society often evinces stratification or dominance patterns in subgroups.

Insofar as it is collaborative, a society can enable its members to benefit in ways that would not otherwise be possible on an individual basis; both individual and social (common) benefits can thus be distinguished, or in many cases found to overlap.”

I believe there are clear parallels here to how an SoS is typically described. So what are then the elements of a society? The above text makes a reference to the subject of social sciences, so let us once again consult Wikipedia on this topic:

“Social science is a major category of academic disciplines, concerned with society and the relationships among individuals within a society. It in turn has many branches, each of which is considered a “social science”. The main social sciences include economics, political science, human geography, demography and sociology. In a wider sense, social science also includes some fields in the humanities such as anthropology, archaeology, jurisprudence, psychology, history, and linguistics.”

Further down the Wikipedia article, a slightly different list of branches are described in more detail. There are thus many aspects of society studied by different branches of social science (possibly more than the ones described above), and some of them appear more relevant than others as a parallel for technical SoS. In particular, these appear to be important:

  • Economics: How are resources shared between the participants in the SoS, and what services do they provide to each other?
  • Jurisprudence: What are the rules that are needed to make the SoS function, and how can they be enforced?
  • Political science: How should the system of government of the SoS be designed?
  • Communication studies: How should the constituent systems in the SoS communicate with each other?

In future posts, I plan to dig deeper into some of these subjects, and try to understand how they can be useful in the engineering of SoS.

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