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Making Better

of Computers Use by Michele Lynn

W

That’s the study of how you design mechanisms where you have to make some joint decision based on the preferences of multiple parties. We look at how you create these mechanisms to get good outcomes even when people behave strategically.” Mechanism design, a subfield of microeconomic theory, is based on game theory, which explores how individuals act strategically when there are other players who are also acting strategically. This relatively young field is receiving recognition as evi-

hile in third grade in his native Amsterdam, Vince Conitzer took his first computer programming course, along with a friend. “The adults thought it was so cute that here were these little kids who were going to take a computer course for adults along with us,” he said. “But of course, being kids, we actually picked it up a little faster. And after a couple of classes, they were asking us for help.” Although Conitzer, now an Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Economics at Duke, didn’t have much opportunity to take computer science courses again until he reached college, he had clearly found his niche. At Duke, he researches the intersection of economics and computer science, particularly artificial intelligence. “Basically, I work on computational aspects of microeconomics,” said Conitzer. “I work on a variety of topics, but a lot of it involves mechanism design.

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denced by the awarding of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Economics for fundamental work in mechanism design. Conitzer outlines the basics of this field in his course syllabus by explaining that mechanism design studies how to design the game (or “mechanism”) so that self-interested behavior will lead to good outcomes. He notes that while computer scientists cannot directly control the behavior of (self-interested) users, they can give users incentives to behave in a desirable way. Conitzer says that every time voters go to the polls to elect leaders, they participate in a real-life example of mechanism design. “People have different and conflicting preferences about who they would like to see elected. When there are only two candidates, it’s clear to most people how

GIST Spring 2009  

Growing a green economy, increasing the social capital of girls in Kenya, and making better use of computers.

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