Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

“Robots” vs Environmental Managers

By Matthew Holden

Can automated algorithms do better than humans in conservation games?

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Given all the real-world complexities involved when managing ecosystems, do quantitative methods (which ignore most of these complications) really help decision-makers achieve better environmental outcomes? How do these quantitative methods compare with the alternative: humans making decisions based on intuition, experience and their best judgement?

Unfortunately, it is difficult to answer this question in real-life because experiments in management are usually not repeatable. That is, once a manager “acts” based on their experience, it’s usually impossible to compare the results to how well an alternative decision, aided by a mathematical model, would have performed.

But what is difficult or impossible in real life can sometimes be achieved in the virtual world. Computer games allow us to pit human-based decisions against automated model-based decisions : “robots” following simple mathematical rules. For every game a human plays using intuition, a robot plays using predetermined instructions that are optimal given some quantitative model. The model, being a simplification, is an approximation so it is always, to some degree, wrong.

We explored this approach using environmental science university students as our test humans. We had them play an online computer game where the players tried to harvest a hypothetical salmon population in order to...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.