A Prisoner's Dilemma

A Prisoner's Dilemma

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Game theory - a branch of mathematics concerned with conflict and deception - is one of the core concepts of our time. "Prisoner's Dilemma" traces the life of John von Neumann, who constructed the theory, invented the digital computer, and played a key role in the development of the atom bomb. William Poundstone, the author of "The Recursive Universe and Labyrinths of Reason", weaves into the story a history of the pivotal phases of the Cold War and an investigation of game theory's far-reaching influence on public policy today.show more

Product details

  • Paperback | 301 pages
  • 120 x 190mm | 228g
  • Oxford University Press
  • Oxford Paperbacks
  • Oxford, United Kingdom
  • line figures, bibliography
  • 019286162X
  • 9780192861627

Table of contents

Part 1 Dilemmas: the nuclear dilemma; John von Neumann; prisoner's dilemma. Part 2 John von Neumann: the child prodigy; Kun's Hungary; early career; the institute; Klara; personality; the Sturm und Drang period; the best brain in the world. Part 3 Game theory: Kriegspiel; who was first?; theory of games and economic behaviour; cake division; rational players; games as trees; games as tables; zero-sum games; minimax and cake; mixed strategies; curve balls and deadly genes; the minimax theorem; n-person games. Part 4 The bomb: Von Neumann at Los Alamos; game theory in wartime; Bertrand Russell; world government; operation crossroads; the computer; preventive war. Part 5 The Rand Corporation: history; thinking abouth the unthinkable; surfing, semantics, Finnish phonology; Von Neumann at Rand; John Nash; the Monday-morning quarterback. Part 6 Prisoner's dilemma: the Buick sale; honour among thieves; the Flood-Dresher experiment; Tucker's anecdote; common sense; prisoner's dilemmas in literature; free rider; nuclear rivalry. Part 7 1950: the Soviet bomb; the man from Mars; Urey's speech; the Fuchs affair; the Korean war; the nature of technical surprise; aggressors for peace; Francis Matthews; aftermath; public reaction; was it a trial balloon?; the MacArthur speech; Orvil Anderson; press reaction; how many bombs?; coda. Part 8 Game theory and its discontents: criticism of game theory; utility and Machiavelli; are people rational?; the Ohio State studies. Part 9 Von Neumann's last years: the H-bomb; a very fine tiger; the commissioner; the moment of hope; illness; death. Part 10 Chicken and the Cuban missile crisis: chicken; volunteer's dilemma; volunteer's dilemma experiments; the Cuban missile crisis; the madman theory. Part 11 More on social dilemmas: deadlock; stag hunt; asymmetric games; justifying co-operation; Howard's meta-game; backward induction paradox. Part 12 Survival of the fittest: stable strategies; is defection in the genes?; Robert Axelrod; TIT FOR TAT; the trouble with TIT FOR TAT; artificial selection; the fish in the mirror; co-operation and civilization; TIT FOR TAT in the real world. Part 13 The dollar auction: escalation; Shubik's dollar auction; dollar auctions in real life; strategies; rational bidding; where game theory falls; the largest-number game; feather in a vacuum.show more

Review Text

Here's one version: You and your partner are captured. If you rat on him ("defect") and he is silent, you get off scot-free and he gets three years - and vice versa. If you both rat on each other, you both get less lengthy sentences, two years; but if you both clam up (cooperate with each other), you get one year each. What to do? It is the dilemma posed by the prisoner's dilemma that is the theme of this latest volume from Poundstone (Labyrinths of Reason, 1988, etc.) - an intriguing exercise in point/counterpoint as Poundstone intertwines the development of game theory with a running biography of one of game theory's founders, John von Neumann. Here again are the tales of the brilliant Hungarian mathematician, the practical joker, the reckless driver and not-so-hot poker player who was a jewel in the crown of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton - and also advisor on the Manhattan Project and the hydrogen bomb, consultant at RAND, developer of the digital computer, possessor of a photographic memory, and on and on. Early in his career, von Neumann co-authored the Theory of Games and Economic Behavior with the economist Oskar Morgenstern ("one of the most influential and least-read books of the twentieth century"). Poundstone's point is that for all the beauty of the concepts and theorems derived from game theory (minimax theorem, zero-sum symmetric games, optimal strategies), real games are not played by rational players; often they are not symmetric and, if played not once but in successive rounds, may demonstrate that cooperation is the best strategy. Poundstone's examples of the nuclear-arms race and other instances of the kinds of Pyrrhic victories that can obtain in situations of mutual distrust are apt. The fact that von Neumann, a lifelong cynic, had a deathbed conversion to Catholicism not so subtly underscores the presence of paradoxes and contradictions that characterize human as opposed to mathematical behavior. (Kirkus Reviews)show more

Rating details

1,167 ratings
3.9 out of 5 stars
5 26% (303)
4 45% (528)
3 23% (266)
2 5% (60)
1 1% (10)
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