Agent-based models are a kind of microscale model that simulate the simultaneous operations and interactions of multiple agents in an attempt to re-create and predict the appearance of complex phenomena. The process is one of emergence from the lower (micro) level of systems to a higher (macro) level. As such, a key notion is that simple behavioral rules generate complex behavior. This principle, known as K.I.S.S. ("Keep it simple, stupid"), is extensively adopted in the modeling community. Another central tenet is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Individual agents are typically characterized as boundedly rational, presumed to be acting in what they perceive as their own interests, such as reproduction, economic benefit, or social status, using heuristics or simple decision-making rules. ABM agents may experience "learning", adaptation, and reproduction.
Most agent-based models are composed of: (1) numerous agents specified at various scales (typically referred to as agent-granularity); (2) decision-making heuristics; (3) learning rules or adaptive processes; (4) an interaction topology; and (5) an environment. ABMs are typically implemented as computer simulations, either as custom software, or via ABM toolkits, and this software can be then used to test how changes in individual behaviors will affect the system's emerging overall behavior.
The idea of agent-based modeling was developed as a relatively simple concept in the late 1940s. Since it requires computation-intensive procedures, it did not become widespread until the 1990s.
The history of the agent-based model can be traced back to the Von Neumann machine, a theoretical machine capable of reproduction. The device von Neumann proposed would follow precisely detailed instructions to fashion a copy of itself. The concept was then built upon by von Neumann's friend Stanislaw Ulam, also a mathematician; Ulam suggested that the machine be built on paper, as a collection of cells on a grid. The idea intrigued von Neumann, who drew it up—creating the first of the devices later termed cellular automata. Another advance was introduced by the mathematician John Conway. He constructed the well-known Game of Life. Unlike von Neumann's machine, Conway's Game of Life operated by tremendously simple rules in a virtual world in the form of a 2-dimensional checkerboard.
One of the earliest agent-based models in concept was Thomas Schelling's segregation model, which was discussed in his paper "Dynamic Models of Segregation" in 1971. Though Schelling originally used coins and graph paper rather than computers, his models embodied the basic concept of agent-based models as autonomous agents interacting in a shared environment with an observed aggregate, emergent outcome.
In the early 1980s, Robert Axelrod hosted a tournament of Prisoner's Dilemma strategies and had them interact in an agent-based manner to determine a winner. Axelrod would go on to develop many other agent-based models in the field of political science that examine phenomena from ethnocentrism to the dissemination of culture. By the late 1980s, Craig Reynolds' work on flocking models contributed to the development of some of the first biological agent-based models that contained social characteristics. He tried to model the reality of lively biological agents, known as artificial life, a term coined by Christopher Langton.
The first use of the word "agent" and a definition as it is currently used today is hard to track down. One candidate appears to be John Holland and John H. Miller's 1991 paper "Artificial Adaptive Agents in Economic Theory", based on an earlier conference presentation of theirs.