Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Man versus Machine

A recent article in Wired Magazine titled “Clive Thompson on the Cyborg Advantage” described the result of a “freestyle” chess tournament in which teams of players competed with help of any computerized aid. What was surprising was that the winner was not the team with a chess grand-master or the team with the most powerful supercomputer. Instead, the team that won was a team that was best able to combine the power of the machine with the human way of thinking.

Years ago, I was dipping into the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) which was the hype of the time. AI has failed for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it was way ahead of its time but perhaps it attempted to relegate too much decision power to the machines while the human expertise and intuition have always proven superior in the end. And so AI vanished and I’ve moved on to other things like content management.

The problem AI attempted to solve is more than relevant today. Faced with the staggering over-abundance of information, we are trying to find ways in which to use computers to help us make sense of all the data. The first step was making the information retrievable via search. But as soon as we have halfway accomplished that task, we have come to realize that this is not the solution. Virtually every search query produces too many results and the poor humans have to employ their expertise and intuition yet again to weed out the millions of hits.

The next step is to employ machines to automatically analyze and classify the content to reduce the volume of information humans have to deal with. But while such analytics and classification technologies have been around for years, they are still in their infancy. Outside specific applications that deal with limited content volume and scope, we don’t trust the machines yet. Usually, the final decision is up to the humans – just think of the e-Discovery reference model where we find all relevant content and then filter it to reduce the manual review cost. The goal today is to cull the volume of data that humans have to deal with. And that might remain the right approach for some time to come.

The right line of attack might be just like in the freestyle chess match. The solution is to facilitate the best possible interaction between the machines and humans. That needs to be reflected in the software architecture and its user interfaces but perhaps also in the skills required from us, humans. In the near future, it might not be the smartest people who will be most effective but rather those who will be best able to take advantage of the machines to augment their decision making ability.

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