Category: AI

What can people do better than machines? The view from 1951

Image from Paul Fitts' paper on huma machine differences

What can humans do that machines can’t? The pessimistic view, in a world of advancing AI and robotics, would be “less and less every day”. While researching this today I ran into an interesting historical perspective — the view from 1951.

It’s a paper called “Human Engineering for an Effective Air Navigation and Traffic Control System,” written for the National Security Council by Paul Fitts, a psychologist known for studying human factors in technology. He was most famous for his work trying to figure out how to automate air travel to make it more safe, and that’s where this report comes in. It’s a long, elegantly-written attempt to tease out the distinctions: Which aspects of airflight could best be managed by machines, and what by humans?

The fun begins on page 6, where Fitts asks …

Callout from Paul Fitt's paper: what can man do better than machines

He argues that our “sensory functions” and “perceptual abilities” are more sensitive than machines — which is arguably less true today than it was back then, given innovations in everything from LIDAR and 3D imaging to olfaction. He also argues we meatfolk have the edge on “reasoning” — which, again, is certainly true but probably much less true than in 1951, when it was considered pretty rad to get a vacuum-tube computer to play a simple peg game.

But then Fitts points out a unique human cognitive advantage: “Flexibility”.Flexibility. Another special Capacity of the human is his extraordinary flexibility and ability to improvise. These abilities are still in completely understood by psychologists, but they represent important respects in which humans surpass machines. The amount of flexibility a machine has is fixed by the amount that was built into it. The machine will attempt as many different kinds of solutions as it's designer plan for and no more. Experiments on complex problem-solving and humans, on the other hand, show that humans may attempt many different solutions to the same problem – just think of the number of ways in which this paragraph could've been written to convey essentially the same point. Flexibility is especially important in the changing and evolving system, such as one in which new techniques are constantly coming into use. It also provides insurance against complete breakdown in emergencies. The conclusion here is that if flexibility in the system is important, it probably is a good plan to let human beings play an important role in the system.

Now, this distinction seems still very solid! AI and robotics are remarkably more advanced than in 1951, but even the most advanced machine is still pretty narrow in its function. “General” AI is still nowhere in sight, and robots are still simply terrible at navigating and manipulating the everyday human environment: Google’s Go-playing computer creamed the world’s champion at that game, but it couldn’t pick up the game pieces by itself. In any individual intellectual and physical skill, you could create (or soon create) a machine that would best us, probably. But human ability to adapt to new situations and tasks makes us the cognitive Swiss Army knife in this corner of the universe.

(We could extend Fitt’s list by adding a bunch of areas in which humans still trounce machines, by the way — like empathy and creativity. Fitts didn’t include these, possibly because he didn’t see them as related to airflight control, though I could make the case they’re necessary in that field.)

This point about flexibility reminds me of Robert Heinlein’s dictum:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

If I’d written that list I’d probably have included a bit less fighting and invasion-planning, but otherwise it’s a pretty solid CV. Of those twenty-one skills, though, I’m only confident of my ability in fifteen.

Go download that whole paper by Fitts — it’s a fun read! (That awesome image at the top of this post is from the paper, BTW.)

The infinite monkeys of spam poetry

pixelated shakespeare

Every once in a while a spambot posts a comment on my blog that is inadvertently poetic. They’re just crawling online text, cutting it up and posting in a word-slurry, but hey — the infinite monkeys of the spambot universe occasionally kick up a pretty lovely post.

Today I was cleaning out the comment-spam on this blog and found this beaut:

Gooseneck trailer hitches are important to haul irregularly
shaped cargo trailers that stick out from the front.
Multiple Paladins will have the capacity
to have Beacon of Light active around the same target, at well.
Best first nerf gun To add insult to injury, Icebound
Fortitude which can be a Death Knight tank’s main “oh crap” ability is
it’s cooldown doubled – from one or two minutes.

I remember one manager I met using a consulting assignment who expressed frustration attempting to deal
with her Gen Y employees. Scenarios (like Nordenwatch) provided fun, instant action and were even superior to Wo
– W battlegrounds.

Sing, bard!

Today I read …

Bicycle woodcut from 1908 Popular Mechanics

  • More proof that teenagers still prize hanging out F2F — and doing so, crucially, while away from adults. This was also the big takeaway from danah boyd’s wonderful book It’s Complicated, which is: a) kids want to spend time with each other, away from authority figures, but b) parents have created a world where that’s less possible than ever, so c) they moved it all to social media, which even they regard as a less-robust version of F2F, but still … better than nothing. <rant>These are the sensible, informed conclusions that generally come from field researchers who do in-depth, in-the-field, shoe-leather reporting, instead of engaging in the sort of lazy, deskbound chin-stroking that propels most “teens today!” punditry.</rant>