Negotiating with the computer

Whether we are browsing the Internet in search of a second-hand car or running through the details of our salary with the boss, we are constantly negotiating. Computers could often do it better, believes Tim Baarslag from the Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica. He is using his recently acquired Veni grant to develop algorithms to obtain the best result from each deal.

Text: Kristel Kleijer

Tim Baarslag (credits: Manon Bruininga)

‘People are not good at all at negotiating’, says Tim Baarslag. They are often side-tracked by emotions during important transactions. Computers do not do that. Furthermore, a computer can maintain an overview and calculate the outcome of all possible agreements within no time.’

But how does the computer know which outcome is the best one for you as a user? Is the salary more important to you than the secondary employment conditions? Is the colour of your new car relevant? Baarslag will use his Veni grant to refine the algorithms. That will enable the computer to pose the right question to the user during the negotiations so that the most valuable information can be brought to light. He uses simulations to test his algorithms. For the ninth time, Baarslag is also organising a competition this year during the world's biggest conference on artificial intelligence. Algorithms from computer scientists around the globe will be used in negotiations for profit. Computers will also compete against people. ‘In the natural situation, such as a salary negotiation, people usually win’, says Baarslag. ‘The complexity of the situation including the emotions of the opponent and the relationship in the future is difficult for the computer to estimate. However, if we take the right-of-way negotiations of self-driving cars, for example, then the computer wins by a mile. At a junction, self-driving cars must agree within a few milliseconds as to who is best given right of way, depending on who has the most haste, what is safest for both and the traffic flow. Computers can do that faster and better than people.’

In the natural situation, such as a salary negotiation, people usually win

Nevertheless, Baarslag thinks that within two years you will also be able to count on the computer in socially complex situations.

‘Computers will then play a supportive role’, he explains. ‘When purchasing a car, the computer can help you to prepare by calculating the optimal outcome. It will be able to take into account all relevant factors such as the price and the car's condition. Even the colour if that is important for you.’

If Baarslag gets his way, we will go to the car dealer or the salary negotiations in the near future with our pocket computer in hand.