Complex Adaptive System Design (Part 10)

guest post by John Foley

Though the Complex Adaptive System Composition and Design Environment (CASCADE) program concluded in Fall 2020, just this week two new articles came out reviewing the work and future research directions:

• John Baez and John Foley, Operads for designing systems of systems, Notices of the American Mathematical Society 68 (2021), 1005–1007.

• John Foley, Spencer Breiner, Eswaran Subrahmanian and John Dusel, Operads for complex system design specification, analysis and synthesis, Proceedings of the Royal Society A 477 (2021), 20210099.

Operads for Designing Systems of Systems

The first is short and sweet (~2 pages!), aimed at a general mathematical audience. It describes the motivation for CASCADE and how basic modeling issues for point-to-point communications led to the development network operads:


This figure depicts the prototypical example of this style of operad, the ‘simple network operad’, acting on an algebra of graphs whose nodes are endowed with locations and edges can be no longer than a fixed range limit. For more information, check out the article or Part 4 of this series.

For a quick, retrospective overview of CASCADE, this note is hard to beat, so I won’t repeat more here.

Operads for complex system design specification, analysis and synthesis

The second article is a full length review, aimed at a general applied science audience:

We introduce operads for design to a general scientific audience by explaining what the operads do relative to broadly applied techniques and how specific domain problems are modelled. Research directions are presented with an eye towards opening up interdisciplinary partnerships and continuing application-driven investigations to build on recent insights.

The review describes how operads apply to system design problems through three examples:

and concludes with a discussion of future research directions. The specification and synthesis examples come from applications of network operads in CASCADE, but the analysis example was contributed by collaborators Spencer Breiner and Eswaran Subrahmanian at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), who analyzed the Length Scale Interferometer (LSI) at NIST headquarters. Readers interested in a quick introduction to these examples should head directly to Section 3 of the review.

As we describe:

The present article captures an intermediate stage of technical maturity: operad-based design has shown its practicality by lowering barriers of entry for applied practitioners and demonstrating applied examples across many domains. However, it has not realized its full potential as an applied meta-language. Much of this recent progress is not focused solely on the analytic power of operads to separate concerns. Significant progress on explicit specification of domain models and techniques to automatically synthesize designs from basic building blocks has been made.

With this context, CASCADE’s contribution was prototyping general-purpose methods to specify basic building blocks and synthesize composite systems from atoms. By testing these methods against specific domain problems, we learned that domain-specific information should be exploited but systematically fitting together general-purpose and computationally efficient methods is challenging. Moreover, no reconciliation between the analytic point-of-view on operads for system design and the `generative’ perspective of network operads, which facilitate specification and synthesis, has been established. The review does not address how these threads might fit together precisely, but perhaps the answer looks something like this:


For more discussion of future research directions, please see Section 7 of the review, especially the open problems listed in 7f.

For readers that make it through the examples in Sections 4, 5 and 6 of the review but still want more, the following references provide additional details:

• John Baez, John Foley, Joe Moeller and Blake Pollard, Network models, Theory and Applications of Categories 35 (2020), 700–744.

• Spencer Breiner, Olivier Marie-Rose, Blake Pollard and Eswaran Subrahmanian, Modeling hierarchical system with operads, Electron. Proc. Theor. Comput. Sci. 323 (2020) 72–83.

• John Baez, John Foley and Joe Moeller, Network models from Petri nets with catalysts, Compositionality 1 (4) (2017).


Here’s the whole series of posts:

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.

Part 9 – Network models from Petri nets with catalysts.

Part 10 – Two papers reviewing the whole project.

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