Monday, April 26, 2010

Are you smarter than your GPS?

I've never been great at names, but I used to be able to recall facts and trivia with the speed of a..., you know..., one of those... um,  fast... thingies.  Rats!  As I've aged, my brain requires much more sleep, nutrients, and caffeine than Earth has hours, money, or Starbucks.  Fortunately, having the ability to recall the compatibility matrix for the last three combinations of JDBC, Oracle, and WebSphere is not as important as understanding why loose coupling is critical to system reliability. 

Raw facts, like a compatibility matrix can be Googled, whereas experience, intuition, and instinct is likely in the perpetual human domain.

Author Clive Thompson of Wired Magazine recently did a piece on the Cyborg Advantage, the melding of human and computer capability.  In it, he talks about how Garry Kasparov was defeated in a chess match by an IBM computer (Deep Blue) in 1997.  For many, this signaled the beginning of the age of Orwell complete with Big Brother and Minority Reports. 

But it got Kasparov to thinking about the intrinsic strengths and weaknesses of humans and machines.  Rather than battle one against the other, what if we combined them instead? In 2005 an on-line chess tournament that pitted human teams against humans/computer teams yielded an interesting result.  Not only were the cyborgs disproportionately victorious, but the grand champion was a pair of twenty somethings aided by off-the-shelf chess programs.

This should not come as a surprise. In my car I have a Garmin GPS box that I use to navigate in unfamiliar territory.  I've lost count of the number of times the little witch has told me to turn left when I knew very well that was a bad idea.  Rather than blindly following her formulaic verbalizations of longitudinal lunacy, I leverage my age-enhanced reasoning skill.  She eventually recalculates based on my actual position and provides advice from there.

The point is that the computerized GPS system is used to augment, rather than replace human judgment, perspective, observation, and decisions.  Some of the world's busiest traffic intersections are managed by computer controlled traffic signals.  Still, drivers are permitted to make right turns on red - automation augmented by human judgment.

The architectural point here is to avoid over architecting a solution; essentially removing humans from the equations.  Human processing, observation, and experience can augment computer automation.  Pitting one against the other is a sure fire way to lose the best of both.

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