Near-human Tasks

This morning I was writing a test plan document. It contained lots of technical nitty-gritty and detail, but a lot of it was the same stuff repeated over and over again. It was very tedious to write (and hence undoubtedly error-prone), but necessary. I kept thinking how useful it would be if I could automate the process. I knew it was just a little too complex, and contained a few too many exceptions, though, that writing a program to do it would be more trouble than it would be worth.

This led me to thinking about ‘near-human’ tasks. Perhaps we can classify tasks into three board areas:

  • Automatable. These are tasks that can easily be programmed, and where it makes sense to do so once you have a computer. For example, figuring out the prime numbers between 1 and 1 million is far faster on computer than by hand (including the time to write the program).

  • Non-automatable. These are tasks that almost certainly cannot be programmed, even with the current state of AI, and are often open questions: ‘How do I prevent wars?’, ‘Is global warming real?’, ‘Which way should I design my new product?’, ‘What’s the best colour for a car?’, etc.

  • Near-human, or semi-automatable. These are tasks (such as mine above), that feel like they should be automatable, but anyone who has any software engineering experience knows that they will spend more time writing the program to do it than doing the task (although only by a factor of up to 10, say).

It wouldn’t surprise me to discover that near-human tasks are an already-understood concept, probably in the field of AI or some other computer science theoretical field (possibly something I should already know!), and that I’m reinventing terms here. But maybe they an area that we can focus on more in order to overcome some frustration with the menial tasks that annoy us?

One possible example, although more automatable than my original one, is that of detecting spam. Relatively good spam filters now exist for email, with ~1% false negative rate and next-to-no false positives. These spam filters have been probably been technically possible for some time (although they still eat a fair amount of compute resources), but have only risen to prominence in the past few years because the rising tide of spam has made them necessary. They are still not perfect, which in my mind is what keeps them out of the fully-automatable category (the writers are always one step behind the spammers, and would have to do more work than is worthwhile, or maybe even possible, to get a 0% false negative rate), but they are getting closer.

What other examples of near-human tasks exist? What should the bright software engineers of tomorrow be working on to make our lives easier?

Toilet Indicator Usability

As an experiment in being a cheapskate (I normally spend too much), I travelled on a Megabus from Winchester to London at the weekend. To pass the time, I attempted to assess the usability of the light situated outside the toilet (I’d left all my good CDs at home). My train of thought was as follows:

After seeing the light turn on when someone went inside, I assumed I was correct in my initial guess - it was to indicate it was occupied. So far, so good - although things would have been less certain if you hadn’t been sitting next to it and seen it do this before. However, the light stayed on for 3 minutes after someone left the toilet. After seeing this consistently happen twice, I figured it must be going through some cleaning cycle - thus the light really meant ‘do not enter’ rather than ‘occupied’. I was just congratulating myself on figuring out this rather straightforward pattern when a further complication arose - as we approached London, and the roads got bumpier (or so I theorized), the light seemed to switch on and off fairly randomly, and this time I just couldn’t correlate it with anything meaningful. Perhaps just a faulty connection in a switch somewhere, but it made me question my previous two conclusions to the extent that as I got off the bus, I realized that I hadn’t really learnt anything at all. Perhaps the light had nothing to do with the toilet, apart from being located nearby.

This is a trivial example, and you could argue it didn’t matter. But also, after spending over 2 hours studying the light, and still not being 100% sure what it did, I couldn’t help but think that maybe, just maybe, it could have been designed to be more obvious (or at least have the faulty switch fixed). These little technological irritations don’t _normally _hurt anyone (although there have been plenty of similar examples that have caused ‘pilot error’ plane crashes, for example), but they are still things that us technologists should aim to understand and defeat, if only for the sanity of ourselves and those around us.

For a lot more discussion on this topic, see Don Norman’s classic book The Design of Everyday Things.

Economic Specialisation and Air-Con

It’s interesting, working in a modern knowledge economy (I’m not yet sure whether I like that term), how much happens behind the scenes that you’re not aware of. This is the wonder of economic specialisation and trade.

I was reminded of this today on a small level, because one of the buildings here at Hursley has broken air-con (the south of England is currently experiencing a mini-heatwave and I think it’s just become too much for our system). I thought of the time I toured the tunnels and back-rooms of our office buildings here, and became aware of all that happened - the huge heaters and air-con units, the electricity and water supply, and all the things we take for granted. The engineer showing us round (who was a contractor) was clearly a specialist in all of this, and took great pride in his domain. I knew next to nothing about what he was showing us, and became aware how dependent we were on him and his colleagues.

That’s an example of one aspect of a mini-economy inside one organization. Every time I come across something like this, I’m grateful that there are experts on every topic imaginable. This is the way for society and man to progress - increased specialisation - ‘green’ advocates should remember this when they rail against globalisation and advocate trade based on protectionism, barriers, and governmental control.

Dog Days (Hundstage)

Corriere della Sera said of Dog Days:

‘Those who have seen this film will never forget it, whether they loved it or hated it’

Well, I certainly didn’t like it, but I also think it is ultimately forgettable. The various stories within the film (whose only common thread is that they happen during a heatwave in Vienna) are vague, directionless, and mostly uninteresting. The characters are tedious. The hitch-hiker who seems to be suffering from some form of autism is by far the most interesting character, but even her scenes become repetitive after not too long.

Avoid unless you particularly like slow-going and very formal films.

Color of Night

Color of Night is an odd film. It starts off as a dreadful drama. The plot, though quirky, is jumpy and inconsistent - although not challenging. Bruce Willis plays his typical smartass role, totally unsuited to the psychiatrist he is supposed to be. He seems out of place in this movie. We know he can manage atypical roles (Death Becomes Her) but he doesn’t manage them here. Scott Bakula plays another psychologist, a friend of Willis - he portrays a relatively believeable character but gets killed off too quickly. The cop assigned to investigate is an even more camp version of Luis Guzmán. His sympathy for Willis is ridicously non-existent. The therapy group that Willis adopts when Bakula dies is full of parodies of nutcases, not nutcases themselves.

Nevertheless, it somehow held my attention. No, I don’t mean the notorious sex scenes (Willis shows more than I’d prefer and Jane March is such a weird character it’s hard to find her attractive). Perhaps just because it’s one of those films that isn’t indended to be a comedy, but manages it by accident. The twist at the end of the film is laughable - almost so much that I don’t feel bad for not seeing it coming. It’s worth seeing if you have the time, but don’t go out of your way.

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