The right level of abstraction = the right level to model

I think the take away from my last post is that models of systems should aim to model them at the right level of abstraction, where that right level corresponds to the places where there are bottlenecks. These bottlenecks are places where, as we zoom out in terms of abstraction, the system suddenly seems simpler. The underlying differences don’t actually make a difference; they are just variation.

The difficulty is that it’s really, really hard to see or decide where these bottlenecks are. We rightly laud Newton for seeing that a wide range of different systems could all be described by a single equation; but it’s also true that Einstein showed that this apparent simplicity was actually an approximation for a certain (large!) subclass of systems, and so the sweet spot of system modelling isn’t quite where Newton thought it was.

For living systems, it’s even harder to see where the right level of abstraction lies. Linnaeus (apparently the most-cited human) certainly created a model that was tremendously useful, working at the level of the species. This model has frayed a bit with the advent of DNA technology, since the clusters from observations don’t quite match the clusters from DNA, but it was still a huge contribution. But it’s turning out to be very hard to figure out the right level of abstractions to capture ideas like “particular disease” “particular cancer” even though we can diagnose them quite well. The variations in what’s happening in cells are extremely difficult to map to what seems to be happening in the disease.

For human systems, the level of abstraction is even harder to get right. In some settings, humans are surprisingly sheep-like and broad-brush abstractions are easy to find. But dig a little, and it all falls apart into “each person behaves as they like”. So predicting the number of “friends” a person will have on a social media site is easy (it will be distributed around Dunbar’s number), but predicting whether or not they will connect with a particular person is much, much harder. Does advertising work? Yes, about half of it (as Ogilvy famously said). But will this ad influence this person? No idea. Will knowing the genre of this book or film improve the success rate of recommendations? Yes. Will it help with this book and this person? Not so much.

Note the connection between levels of abstraction and clustering. In principle, if you can cluster (or, better, bicluster) data about your system and get (a) strong clusters, and (b) not too many of them, then you have some grounds for saying that you’re modelling at the right level. But this approach founders on the details: which attributes to include, which algorithm to use, which similarity measure, which parameters, and so on and on.

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