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Herbert A. Simon

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Biography

Born: June 15, 1916

Died: February 9, 2001

Herbert A. Simon was a Nobel-prizing winning economist and social scientist who made pioneering contributions to the study of human decision making and artificial intelligence.

Simon was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1916. His father, a German immigrant of Jewish ancestry, was a successful electrical engineer and his mother was a noted pianist. He attended local public schools and became a reader of institutional economists, such as John R. Commons and Richard Ely, at a young age. He enrolled at the University of Chicago in the early 1930s, where he followed an interdisciplinary set of courses that he hoped would train him to apply the “hard” methods of mathematics and physics to the social sciences.

He began his graduate work in operations research though an assistantship with Clarence E. Ridley, which led him to be made director of a research group doing similar work at the University of California at Berkeley between 1939 and 1942. These studies in administrative decision-making became the basis of his doctoral dissertation and the foundation for his life’s work.

In 1942, he secured a position in political science at the Illinois Institute of Technology and began attending seminars at the Cowles Commission for Research in Economics at the University of Chicago. Led by Jacob Marschak and Tjalling Koopmans, these sessions proved to be Simon’s “second education in economics.” In 1949, Simons left Chicago for Pittsburgh, helping to establish Carnegie Mellon University’s Graduate School of Industrial Administration. His goal was to apply the emerging field of management science to business education.

Simon’s exposure to public administration convinced him that classical economic theory had an obvious flaw when it came to explaining how people made decisions. He argued that no individual had the mental ability to be a truly rational thinker; that is, it was unrealistic to expect a decision-maker to imagine every alternative to his or her choice and, in turn, to determine the consequences of each of those alternatives. Instead, Simon proposed a theory of “bounded rationality” that described how decision-makers sought an adequate, rather than perfect, solution, or what he called “satisficing.”

In Simon’s view, humans had no choice but to be content with “satisficing”: even a chessmaster’s predictions were usually limited to eight moves. But a computer, he suggested, could be programmed to overcome these cognitive limits. Controversially, Simon argued that this degree of artificial intelligence did not simply demonstrate how a computer could follow a program; rather, he claimed that the machine had a made a choice.

Working with Allen Newell, Simon made a number of important breakthroughs in the study of artifical intelligence, including the development of the Logic Theory Machine program in 1956 and the General Problem Solver program in 1957, both of which used their Information Processing Language.

Simon also worked on projects centered on understand how human learning could be simulated on machines. He created experiments in verbal protocol analysis, concept formation and the development of expertise.

Further Reading

"Obituary: Herbert Simon," The Economist, 24 Feb 2001.

"Herbert A. Simon - Biographical," Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2013.

Herbert Simon, Full-Text Digital Archive, Carnegie Mellon University.