By building artificial societies Dr Dan Farhat can explore labour market outcomes – and communities plagued by “vampires”.
Dr Dan Farhat (Economics) studies vampires.
Farhat explains that his research uses advances in computing and social simulation to create artificial societies, to help understand the choices people make – and their consequences – when interacting with others in complex communities.
He maintains that many traditional approaches in economics, using statistical and mathematical models, can be restrictive. “But with computers, we can build entire economies from the ground up – one artificial person at a time. We fabricate their surroundings and set their behaviours, then simulate their experiences. The local activities generate global patterns.
“To do this you need to understand ecosystems – how to create an interactive setting, how to get the people you create to thrive there and how to deduce useful implications from that kind of model.”
Farhat concedes that it can be time-consuming, elaborate work. “This is economics in a true multidisciplinary sense. You can't do it just with economics alone. Often you need biology or ecology to help form parts of the environment; other social sciences really help, such as sociology, psychology, anthropology, to understand how people interact; and, of course, information science, computer science and statistics for the programming and analysis.”
Farhat is particularly interested in studying labour market outcomes. “If we are looking at unemployment, for example, we can create a virtual space where synthetic firms are looking for artificial workers with specific attributes (skills, age, gender, education, etc.). We give the firms and workers rules to follow when offering and accepting jobs, then simulate the employment process.
“Income distribution, GDP growth rates, unemployment rates, all these are produced by the model as it runs,” says Farhat. “We can include all sorts of things – on-the-job training, university enrolment, durable employment contacts, shirking, industrial accidents – any kind of feature we want, really.”
Farhat says that the research includes using social simulation to look more carefully at communities plagued by “vampires”. The vampire metaphor, he explains, is an attempt to shed light on an array of social and economic issues besetting real people, such as criminal activity, government corruption, worker exploitation and the spread of infectious disease.
“Vampires rely on humans for food. Humans allocate limited inputs between anti-vampire defences and producing consumable goods. Exploiting resources wisely is literally a matter of life and death."
“A small body of research on the economics of vampires exists,” says Farhat. “Using standard economic frameworks, researchers try to identify optimal resource-
use policies for one population or the other. I found this a bit strange. Economics often assumes that people are rational; the costs and benefits of every decision are meticulously weighed. This assumption is built into these vampire studies.
“When we look at vampirism in popular culture, decisions are based on other things: fear, hate, love, instinct, righteousness, history, not to mention uncontrollable thirst. Models based solely on rationality are sure to fail. However, we can work these features into social simulation models with relative ease.”
In discussing his research, Farhat can't resist a little undead-pan humour. “Yeah, simulation is best. Otherwise, I'd have to collect data from real vampires. That's super dangerous. The research assistants wouldn't make it back alive.”