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Sunday, July 10, 2005

Systems

Glutton for free stuff that I am, this morning I picked up one of the issues of IEEE Intelligent Systems laying around by registration. The only piece I've found time to read so far is the letter from the editor, James Hendler. It talked a lot about what a "system" is, why we should build them, and, importantly, how and what to share about that experience with others so that they might also build working systems.

In some ways that set me up to attend Tuomas Sandholm's tutorial on market clearing in the afternoon Of all the topics in the agent school, this is one where I am more than ready to admit a basic lack of knowledge and experience, so I was particularly looking forward to this and Sven Koenig's talks on auction-related topics. I wasn't let down by either, as I already mentioned about Dr Koenig's. Dr Sandholm's was similarly excellent---well presented, and (I thought) striking the appropriate balance between coverage, depth, and research for a tutorial.

One of the things that really struck me as Dr Sandholm presented some of his research, was the system he was presenting. I had this vision of a large Godzilla battling larger and larger auctions. The core is a strong algorithm with beautiful structure, the spine of the beast, chopping away at large swatches of search space. At the leaves are myriad smaller but no less substantial algorithms, handling special cases in dramatically efficient ways. Particularly pleasant to watch was the unfolding of this: the talk progressed through the special cases and their algorithms, then on to a more general case, then in an excellent swoop folded back to encompass these special cases, closing the circle. On top of all these like armor plating were presented a number of pre-processing steps to massage the data and remove trivialities. Although not discussed in much detail, I had the feeling that in implementation any number of tricks & well-crafted code was employed to crank out a few more bids, handle a few more items. A final, glistening, razor edge on the system's claws & teeth.

Maybe I'm just melodramatic and anthropomorphize too much, but it was impressive. The overall system, that ill-defined and over-used symbol, was a sight to imagine---a light, elegant skeleton of theory and structure clad and armored in machinery and engines of special cases and system construction, a warrior built for slaying complexity. The only thing better was how much Dr Sandholm obviously enjoyed the beauty of the theories, the algorithms, and the fit of each component into the larger system.

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