Augmenting Human Intellect

posted Feb 20, 2012, 10:26 PM by Nick Bader
As usual, I got totally derailed by a casual statement near the beginning of the piece.  Engelbart starts with an assumption: the complexity of humankind's problems grows exponentially, and we must take measures to get our comprehension to catch up.  But does the complexity of humankind's problems really grow with time?  I can't decide.  Maybe it does, but maybe it doesn't.  I wasn't around in the fourteenth century, but it seems that humanity as a whole sure had a lot of complex problems confronting it back then.

Humanity has always had problems.  Furthermore, they have always been too complex to solve - otherwise, we would know how to solve them and they would cease to be problems.  Humans seem perfectly able to live normal lives despite our many complex unsolved problems.

On the other hand, if we restrict our attention to the subset of problems that are just a little bit too complex to solve, and therefore that we have some hope of solving, then this subset must get more complex with time, because as our comprehension improves we solve simpler problems and add more complex problems to our subset.  Furthermore, our dawning awareness of problems that we already had must also increase as a function of improved comprehension and global communication.

The implication for me is this: while the subset of problems that we are aware of does indeed become more complex with time as Engelbart says, this increase in complexity is at least partly a function of our ability to solve problems.  This changes Engelbart's gloomy warning (a runaway train of increasing problem complexity) into a hopeful prediction: humankind is able to solve ever-more complex problems with time.  Perhaps some currently intractable problems will someday be crossed off of our list, especially if we adopt Engelbart's concerted effort to increrase our comprehension systematically.

Moving from a self-experiment with note cards to a "science fiction story" (which turns out to be just like the previous section but written in second person with quotes around the paragraphs), Engelbart works through a new way to work on problems.  The system is fascinating in that we all use it already, and perhaps to a greater technological degree than Engelbart describes.  We all use hypertext links, word processors where cut and paste is simple, queries to return information from databases, etc.  Engelbart's future architect uses technology that can today be accomplished with free software (Google Sketchup).  A few of the more difficult calculations are routine in ArcGIS (plus some others which would have been useful to the architect, like viewshed analysis and cut-and-fill calculations).

So it is fascinating to see that even today I have exactly the same problem.  Engelbart writes that "...a good deal of empirical research would be needed to develop a methodology that would capitalize upon the artifact process capabilities."  We have Engelbart's methodology, but the capabilities of our technology have expanded too.  Now we need a new methodology to bring the full power of our new technological organization systems to bear on a problem.  I wonder if we will ever have a consistent methodology for working on problems?