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The problem solving ability of human and artificial intelligence

writer: HIGO, KATSUKI (Ritsumeikan Global Innovation Research Organization, Senior Researcher) published: 2018-11

What is problem solving?

We encounter various problems in our daily lives. These problems run a wide gamut, from the likes of “What should we have for dinner?” to “How should I live the rest of my life?” or “How should we solve enivornmental problems?” The ability to solve these kinds of problems is an important capacity with which human beings are endowed. H.A. Simon, a scholar of economics and organizational theory, and A. Newell, who studied computer science and cognitive psychology, thought of problem solving as (Newell and Simon, 1972).

Artificial intelligence and problem solving

As an approach to having computer programs solve problems, Simon and Newell proposed the method of means-ends analysis. This is a method that involves setting small subordinate goals that are cleared one by one in order to get from the current situation to an ultimate goal. They then further developed this approach and came up with something called a “production system.”A production system is a model of the human reasoning process. A production system engages in problem solving using only the rule “if A, then do B” (A and B represent various conditions and actions depending on the problem). In a production system, this rule and a “working memory” of the current situation are important. In the working memory the current situation is recorded, and problem solving advances a little bit at a time as this situation is checked against the rule (whether or not the current situation satisfies condition A is determined, if not action B is carried out, and the check is then run again).

Human beings and problem solving

This concept of working memory is also important when human beings engage in problem solving. While the same phrase “working memory” is used, however, we must be cognizant of the fact that its meaning varies slightly depending on the field of inquiry. In the discipline of cognitive psychology whose subject is human beings, working memory is thought of as a system that temporarily stores and processes information toward some sort of end (Osaka, 2002). Working memory is operating, for example, when the necessary ingredients and steps come into your mind while thinking about the menu for tonight’s dinner. Otsuka (2003) examines the relationship between the working memory capacity and problem solving efficiency. This research suggests that the capacity of working memory has an effect on problem solving efficiency.

Learning about human beings through the study of artificial intelligence

In the preceding sections I have introduced some research that addresses artificial intelligence and human problem solving. Many other such studies that look at problem solving also exist in the fields of engineering and artificial intelligence. Most of these studies, however, discuss the process of solving puzzle-like problems in which the rules and goals are clearly established, and much remains to be understood when it comes to how human beings solve the actual problems we face in our daily lives such as those I mentioned at the start, and whether or not it is possible to get artificial intelligence to solve these kinds of problems. In order to get closer to solving these problems – or to answering the question “What is intelligence?” – it is important for us to develop the study of artificial intelligence through the results obtained in psychology, a field that studies human beings, and to better understand human beings through the knowledge obtained in the investigation of artificial intelligence.


  • Newell, A., & Simon, H. A. (1972). Human problem solving (Vol. 104, No. 9). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • OTSUKA, K. (2003). “Reading span as an individual difference and cognitive problem solving performance” The Japanese Journal of Psychology (7), 460-465.
  • Osaka, M. (2002). Nō no memo chō waakingu memori [The brain’s notepad – Working memory], Shinyosha.


Ritsumeikan Journal of Human Sciences


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Institute of Ars Vivendi. Ritsumeikan Univ.