“Like winning the lottery”: New assistant professor’s research merges computing science and game theory

    James Wright is studying how people make decisions using the modelling techniques of computing science.

    By Andrew Lyle on October 10, 2018

    James Wright was inspired to study game theory by a paper that didn’t sit right with him. The paper called cooperative decision-making “irrational,” and inspired Wright to specialize his studies in computing science in the field of game theory, helping to better understand and model how humans make choices.

    With a BSc in Computing Science from Simon Fraser University, Wright went on to complete both a masters and PhD at the University of British Columbia, before spending two years as a postdoctoral researcher at the Microsoft Research Lab in New York City.

    Now, Wright has returned to Canada, where he joins the University of Alberta’s world-class team of computing scientists as he continues his research into how humans make strategic decisions; and shares his knowledge with students, too.

    What brought you to the University of Alberta?

    The quality of the researchers in the Department of Computing Science was what most attracted me. I am a game theorist and an artificial intelligence researcher, and those are both areas in which UAlberta's computing science department are world leaders. I'm Canadian, and being able to return home from the United States was also very appealing.

    Tell us about your research program.

    I construct data-driven models that accurately predict human strategic behaviour—that is, the way people act when the results of their actions depend on the actions of other people as well.

    I aim to use these predictive models to improve the effectiveness of real systems.

    For example, agents that interact with people in strategic systems will do a much better job if they can predict how people will react. Similarly, a policy will achieve its goals more effectively when it takes into account how people will respond to the policy.

    When new policies have unintended consequences, it's often because they were designed without thinking about these kinds of strategic questions.

    What inspired you to enter this field?

    I've always known I wanted to work in computing science, but game theory has been a side interest of mine for a long time. It is concerned with some very deep questions about what rationality even means when multiple people are involved; we still don't have answers that I find very satisfactory! When I got to grad school and discovered that algorithmic game theory existed and I could work in both computing science and game theory it was a little like winning the lottery.

    I became interested in behavioural economics and modelling specifically human behaviour during grad school when I got angry about a particular paper. In that paper, cooperation in a certain game—which led to better outcomes for all participants, and which was the way that actual people would always play the game—was labelled "irrational".

    Tell us about your teaching.

    I'll be teaching two courses in the Winter term: an undergrad course on intelligent systems, and a graduate course called Algorithmic Modelling of Human Strategic Behaviour. I'm really looking forward to both of them! You always learn something new about a subject when you teach it to someone else.

    One of the great things about U of A is how welcoming the people are. Moving to Edmonton was a bit scary; I had only been here twice in my life before that! But so many people have gone out of their way to help my family and I to feel at home here.