Complex Adaptive System Design (Part 8)

John Foley, Joe Moeller and I have made some nice progress on compositional tasking for the Complex Adaptive System Composition and Design Environment project.

‘Compositional tasking’ means assigning tasks to networks agents in such a way that you can connect or even overlay such tasked networks and get larger ones. This lets you build up complex plans from smaller pieces.

In my last post in this series, I sketched an approach using ‘commitment networks’. A commitment network is a graph where nodes represent agents and edges represent commitments, like “A should move toward B either for 3 hours or until they meet, whichever comes first”. By overlaying such graphs we can build up commitment networks that describe complex plans of action. The rules for overlaying incorporate ‘automatic deconflicting’. In other words: don’t need to worry about agents being given conflicting duties as you stack up plans… because you’ve decided ahead of time what they should do in these situations.

I still like that approach, but we’ve been asked to develop some ideas more closely connected to traditional methods of tasking, like PERT charts, so now we’ve done that.

‘PERT’ stands for ‘program evaluation and review technique’. PERT charts were developed by the US Navy in 1957, but now they’re used all over industry to help plan and schedule large projects.

Here’s simple example:

The nodes in this graph are different states, like “you have built the car but not yet put on the tires”. The edges are different tasks, like “put the tires on the car”. Each state is labelled with an arbitrary name: 10, 20, 30, 40 and 50. The tasks also have names: A, B, C, D, E, and F. More importantly, each task is labelled by the amount of time that task requires!

Your goal is to start at state 10 and move all the way to state 50. Since you’re bossing lots of people around, you can make them do tasks simultaneously. However, you can only reach a state after you have done all the tasks leading up to that state. For example, you can’t reach state 50 unless you have already done all of tasks C, E, and F. Some typical questions are:

• What’s the minimum amount of time it takes to get from state 10 to state 50?

• Which tasks could take longer, without changing the answer to the previous question? How much longer could each task take, without changing the answer? This amount of time is called the slack for that task.

There are known algorithms for solving such problems. These help big organizations plan complex projects. So, connecting compositional tasking to PERT charts seems like a good idea.

At first this seemed confusing because in our previous work the nodes represented agents, while in PERT charts the nodes represent states. Of course graphs can be used for many things, even in the same setup. But the trick was getting everything to fit together nicely.

Now I think we’re close.

John Foley has been working out some nice example problems where a collection of agents need to move along the edges of a graph from specified start locations to specified end locations, taking routes that minimize their total fuel usage. However, there are some constraints. Some edges can only be traversed by specified teams of agents: they can’t go alone. Also, no one agent is allowed to run out of fuel.

This is a nice problem because while it’s pretty simple and specific, it’s representative of a large class of problems where a collection of agents are trying to carry out tasks together. ‘Moving along the edge of a graph’ can stand for a task of any sort. The constraint that some edges can only be traversed by specified teams is then a way of saying that certain tasks can only be accomplished by teams.

Furthermore, there are nice software packages for optimization subject to constraints. For example, John likes one called Choco. So, we plan to use one of these as part of the project.

What makes this all compositional is that John has expressed this problem using our ‘network model’ formalism, which I began sketching in Part 6. This allows us to assemble tasks for larger collections of agents from tasks for smaller collections.

Here, however, an idea due to my student Joe Moeller turned out to be crucial.

In our first examples of network models, explained earlier in this series, we allowed a monoid of networks for any set of agents of different kinds. A monoid has a binary operation called ‘multiplication’, and the idea here was this could describe the operation of ‘overlaying’ networks: for example, laying one set of communication channels, or committments, on top of another.

However, Joe knew full well that a monoid is a category with one object, so he pushed for a generalization that allowed not just a monoid but a category of networks for any set of agents of different kinds. I didn’t know what this was good for, but I figured: what the heck, let’s do it. It was a mathematically natural move, and it didn’t make anything harder—in fact it clarified some of our constructions, which is why Joe wanted to do it.

Now that generalization is proving to be crucial! We can take our category of networks to have states as objects and tasks (ways of moving between states) as morphisms! So, instead of ‘overlaying networks’, the basic operation is now composing tasks.

So, we now have a framework where if you specify a collection of agents of different kinds, we can give you the category whose morphisms are tasks those agents can engage in.

An example is John’s setup where the agents are moving around on a graph.

But this framework also handles PERT charts! While the folks who invented PERT charts didn’t think of them this way, one can think of them as describing categories of a certain specific sort, with states as objects and tasks as morphisms.

So, we now have a compositional framework for PERT charts.

I would like to dive deeper into the details, but this is probably enough for one post. I will say, though, that we use some math I’ve just developed with my grad student Jade Master, explained here:

Open Petri nets (part 3), Azimuth, 19 August 2018.

The key is the relation between Petri nets and PERT charts. I’ll have more to say about that soon, I hope!

Some posts in this series:

Part 1. CASCADE: the Complex Adaptive System Composition and Design Environment.

Part 2. Metron’s software for system design.

Part 3. Operads: the basic idea.

Part 4. Network operads: an easy example.

Part 5. Algebras of network operads: some easy examples.

Part 6. Network models.

Part 7. Step-by-step compositional design and tasking using commitment networks.

Part 8. Compositional tasking using category-valued network models.

2 Responses to Complex Adaptive System Design (Part 8)

  1. DoubleDuce says:

    John, have you encountered Design Design Structure Matrix? This is a process of connecting all the members of a network in a structure that can be used to model the processes. There is also a tool from Rockwell Automation that can model the stochastic processes taking place between the nodes of the network Glen B. Alleman, MSSM Here’s an example on a spacecraft

    and the network model it produces

    Arena is a discrete event simulation tool used to model the interaction and propagation of risk (in this example) using a network model of how these risk are structured in a program. is the Rockwell Automation site for the Arena application.

    Integrated Program Performance Management DOD, DHS, DOE, NASA, DOJ, GSA 303-241-9633


    • John Baez says:

      No, I have not seen these tools. Thanks! Other people on the team have their feet more firmly on the ground when it comes to software; I have a lot to learn.

      Unfortunately WordPress blogs have a tendency to eat and spit out certain kinds of images in comments before they even reach me. So I can’t restore the images to your comment, but I think if you simply tell me the URL for a jpg or gif I can insert it.

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