Human Simulation: Putting the Human at the center of computer simulation

sdiallo's picture

The question here is how have technologies broadened the study of spirituality/religion. Rather than answer that question directly, I want to share an experience of how the study of religion and spirituality has broadened my approach to modeling and simulation engineering. As an engineer and scientist, the study of religion is quite unsettling and foreign. Usually, we are trained to systematically decompose problems until we attain a solvable unit, then work our way up to the next unit until the problem is solved. Religion and spirituality represent a collection of experiences that cannot be decomposed using my traditional training. 

As a result, when I first started working on the Modeling Religion Project, I had to rely on my experience as a human being to think and assess how to implement complex theories about culture, religion and spirituality into a computing device. After working with researchers from the Humanities, including topologists, religious scholars, bible scholars, psychologists, and social scientists, I realized that I, as an engineer, am too narrowly focused on data and process. My colleagues from the Humanities, on the other hand, are always trying to look beyond data. They want to create narratives and tell a story. In other words, they want engineers to build simulations that tell compelling stories with a reasonable narrative. They did not want to see graphs and pie charts; they want the meaning behind it.

Because of that experience, I realized that in order to have meaningful conversations across disciplines that are seemingly far apart and produce simulations that are useful, we have to change the way we conceive of computer simulations. Simulations are perceived as “dumb” artifacts that mechanically produce outputs based on some input. However, there is a story between the time the input is entered and an ouput is produced. The story of the simulation is what every researcher in every field is interested in. This observation led to the concept of "Human Simulation” where we put the human at the center of the model in order to capture the nature of humans as spiritual actors.

Human Simulation means studying and understanding things that are important and relevant to human beings besides their natural surroundings. It also means designing and building simulations that can be easily understood by every human and not just engineers and analyst. Fundamentally, working with humanist has also broadened my view on how to accurately model spirituality and religion by making me realize how meaningless any theory that relates to those topics is once implemented in a computer simulation. The beauty and insight that only humans are capable of is immediately lost, which means that an actual human being should always be part of a human simulation in order to gain a level of understanding that goes beyond reducible causal inferencing.

The implication of human simulation is potentially game-changing for simulation engineering. From an educational standpoint, simulation engineers need to be trained in science methodologies such as those used in anthropology and counseling; from a technical standpoint, simulation interfaces should be able to capture a narrative as input and provide a story an output instead of variables, charts and graphs; from a scientific standpoint, it means that we have to reassess what it to say something is and perhaps consider a spectrum from plausible to likely to unlikely. From an engineering standpoint, we need to rethink the idea of data. After all, models are only purposeful abstractions of perceptions of reality. They are stories.