Simon’s Ant

Where is the complexity? Just because a system’s environment is complex does not mean that the systems operating within it must be complex…

Where is the complexity? Just because a system’s environment is complex does not mean that the systems operating within it must be complex as well.

“An ant, viewed as a behaving system, is quite simple. The apparent complexity of its behavior over time is largely a reflection of the complexity of the environment in which it finds itself.” — Herbert Simon (Simon’s Law)

Simon’s Law is about an ant on a beach looking for food. If you were to graph the ant’s path it would look swervy and complex.

If you saw this line with no other context, you’d think to yourself: “some ant.” If however you had in your possession a corresponding picture of the beach, you would realize that there is nothing special about the ant at all.

In complex terrain even a simple robot can mimic the ant’s path with only a few simple rules. That robot could be programmed to change course when the strait path is blocked. There are Arduino kits designed for middle schoolers that do this.

Simon’s Ant reminds us to always take the environment into consideration when analyzing a problem. In other words: understand both the content and context of any problem. Most people believe that complex problems require equally complex solutions. But the inverse is often more accurate when context is considered.

A complex problem often signals a simple solution’s existence because the problem contains all the complexity. A seemingly simple problem may indicate that only complex solutions exist.

Be wary of simple problems.