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Game Theory, Nuclear War, and North Korea


In this Washington Post article, Tim Roughgarden, a CS professor at Stanford is interviewed about how game theory applies to military strategy and the current situation with North Korea. Roughgarden claims that game theory began to play a part in the military in the 1940s. During this time period, applications to game theory could be used for optimizing military strategy. Game theory can also be applied to nuclear war because there is the decision of whether or not to attack. Like the prisoner’s dilemma, there are many different scenarios and your decision can drastically affect the other participant (U.S and North Korea). Since there is always the threat of retaliation, the immediate obvious choice is to not attack. Roughgarden explains that instead of only one game of prisoner’s dilemma, in this case, the game is repeated many many times where each decision affects the next. Unfortunately, there is very little interaction between the U.S and North Korea so neither knows how the other will act or react.


In class, we discussed the prisoner’s dilemma and how both criminals will benefit if they stay silent instead of betraying their partner(C instead of NC). At first glance, the logical thing to do is to betray because doing so offers a reward. Using that logic, both criminals would betray each other. But, depending on the punishments (including the one from class), it can be beneficial for both individuals to stay silent. When applied to nuclear war with North Korea, both countries may want to send missiles at the other but it should be in everyone’s interest to not start a nuclear war. It is obviously more complicated than this, but the original scenario is based on a simple prisoner’s dilemma.



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September 2017