Coding Our Future: What Becomes of Human Judgement?

If you write algorithms, you are in the business of creating formulas that enable computers to perform tasks, in some cases tasks that otherwise would be done by humans. Initially your goal is to replicate human processes so things can be done quicker or more effortlessly, or in the case of business, less expensively. Ultimately your goal is to create technology that outperforms human beings.


(Piotr Siedlicki)

Before you scoff at that notion think of this common example. Pretty much all of us now carry navigation systems around with us. I have gotten in the habit, when I am going somewhere that I don’t know how to get to, of getting in my car, plugging the address into my phone and following the verbal directions that I play through the car radio system.

Before GPS, how did I do this? Maybe I called someone who knew how to get there and wrote down the directions they gave me. Or I could have acquired a map, looked over the alternatives, and planned the best route. In either case, the computer, in this case taking the form of my smart phone, is quicker, more up to date, easier and usually less prone to error. In a word, smarter.

Granted these are simple decisions, but the computer is making decisions for us. And the decisions are being made based upon data that is stored in the devices memory, data about maps and routes, and about things like speed limits and traffic lights, one-way streets, traffic and construction. That’s not stuff that’s stored in our human memory or that can easily be accumulated in a timely manner by an individual who just wants to find his way to the place he wants to go.

Now think about all the data that starts to be accumulated when we are wearing devices, when there are devices embedded in numerous things in our homes, sensors in stores, on utility poles and in our vehicles. Devices everywhere, accumulating data about everything.

With this army of computers and massive stockpile of data, what kinds of decisions can computers make? Already computers are being used to read scripts for Hollywood movies to determine which ones to pursue. Will our smartphone be able to tell you which of your clothes you should wear that would give you the best chance of a successful job interview?

There are even some inroads in replacing knowledge workers. Computers are already being used to write news. There are companies such as Narrative Science that have built apps that can take a company financial statement or a baseball box score and write a story. It won’t be brilliant prose, it won’t be insightful, but it will likely be factual and certainly more readable than the source data it was derived from.

This may be attractive to companies like Reuters or Dow Jones who are in the business of trying to get relevant market moving information, such as company financial results, to their Wall Street clients as fast as possible. But even that may be too late because the trading outfits who would buy this information are using algorithms to take the same data and convert it into trades, pretty much cutting out the whole layer of middlemen that includes journalists, analysts and traders.

This has interesting implications for business management. I’ve come across corporate CEO’s who are in the position they are in because they can talk the talk. But they may not nearly be as good at making the decisions they need to make to run a company. How they must welcome data-driven decision making. Of course if a business can be run on decisions made by an automated analysis of the available data, there’s lots of less expensive folks sitting in the cubes who could make the same decisions as the CEO.

artificial intelligence


Computer scientists are focused on how they can put together sets of data that take into consideration not just the environment, but the social setting, behavioral history and a person’s interests to make day to day life decisions. They call this “contextual computing.”

Does human intelligence then lose its value? Is this the end of the dreaded but understandable “human error?” Theoretically we all would make the same decisions when faced with the same problems and having the same set of data. Or does decision-making ability in our society begin to reflect income inequality? Those with the most money to have access to the best information gathering and processing systems on a personal level would then make the best decisions.

If all that isn’t jarring enough there are also some characters knows as neuroscientists who are working on ways to use machines to read people’s minds. That could produce another pretty interesting set of data to guide not just your decision making but your personal behavior. We’ve seen something like that before…in science fiction movies.

Throughout my career I’ve been someone who always focused on intuition, experience, and judgement based on human knowledge. I feel I may be part of a vanishing breed.

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28 Responses to Coding Our Future: What Becomes of Human Judgement?

  1. Fascinating, thought-provoking, and more than a little alarming 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Donna Janke says:

    Certainly lots to think about in this post. I think there are a lot of things we can (and already) have programmed computers to decide. And things like GPS have been useful. But I don’t think we’re ready to turn all decision making over to computers. Human intuition may be based on a combination of our knowledge and experience working together, but our understanding of how the intuition develops and forms isn’t complete. A close family member is going through a health crisis at the moment which includes cognitive issues and the doctors have told us that there is so much about the brain that is unknown, It is, in many ways, the final frontier. Perhaps, as we learn more about the brain and how it works, computer decision-making will become stronger. But let’s not forget about the role of the heart.


  3. lenie5860 says:

    We take things for granted and I for one, never thought about the coding required to run a GPS for instance. When I was reading that, my first thought was – who collected all the data to code? That must have been some time-consuming task. How was it done?
    The other things you write here are fascinating and a bit scary. You mentioned doing away with ‘human error’ but how often do we get stopped by a computer glitch? Have you really never received incorrect information from your GPS?
    I could go on and on – this is an excellent thought-provoking post. Thanks Ken.


  4. jacquiegum says:

    Fascinating Ken! Predictable in some ways…we have to go there, right? Interesting to me is that news is or may be written this way in the future. Personally, I might welcome some of the dryness there…just the facts ma’am! Too much opinion sprinkled on our “news” these days I think. But I loved Donna’s observation about the heart and its role in out thinking. That bears real pondering. Lastly, I’m sad to report that other than mapping out things on a real map back in the day, I don’t remember how I made short trips where I wasn’t sure where I was going! GPS is my life! I was one of the first to sign on to the technology! I DO remember how all my friends laughed at me when I did, though. Said it was silly and was too complicated for most people so it would never be popular! LOL


    • Ken Dowell says:

      Narrative Science can take a baseball box score and ‘write’ two different stories, one from the perspective of each team. So apparently you can program robots to add the desired spin.


  5. Meredith says:

    I have the perfect example of this: the other day I had a doctor appointment at a new location. I had saved the appointment in my google calendar on my phone, knowing it would remind me and then I’d be able to look up the directions on google maps. Well, I left the house and went to pull up the appointment and I hadn’t added the address or the name of the clinic. Duh. It’s a little hard to navigate to a place that you’ve forgotten the name and address of. I fear the computers really have become smarter than me, but then again, that’s not saying much!


  6. Erica says:

    Computers make mistakes too, as they can’t evaluate the situation. They take everything literally. So, they are great for doing things like giving directions. It is very clear cut how to get from point A to point B in most situations. Yet, they will never take the place of humans completely as there are times when things aren’t clear cut, and a computer won’t know how to evaluate that information.

    A few weeks ago, I submitted a picture to Facebook for an ad I was running. I’m pretty positive they have computer analyzing the photos. Needless to say, my photo was rejected for being pornographic and advertising alcohol. Ummmm….It was just a picture promoting my weight-loss talk at my local YMCA. (very innocent). I finally got in touch with a person, and it was then approved. Computers can’t do everything.


  7. Sabrina Q. says:

    Interesting topic. Recently, I was in the bookstore and had my phone in my Twitter app. As I walked by a “Doctor Who” display, my phone made a Tardis sound and displayed a swirling Tardis. I did nothing but walk by this display. Why did this happen? I was trying to figure it out. But, couldn’t find anything. The store did exactly what they wanted and that was to get my attention. I think we will be seeing a lot more of this kind of thing to get our attention. Is it good or bad? Time will tell. Thanks for sharing.


  8. Phoenicia says:

    Computers reading the minds of humans? I do not like the sound of this at all.

    When I use my satellite navigator, I do not like to rely on it completely as there have been times when I have lost signal.

    Computers are only as good as the man that makes them!


  9. While my mind can grasp the many ways data can be harnessed to provide mathematical insight, I readily admit to being someone who can only dream of grasping how algorithms truly work. Your GPS example is spot on. How sad and/or funny though that even with my GPS I still tend to take a wrong turn every now and then. Left and right and be so confusing 😉 I read an article quite some time ago in Nat Geo or maybe Time about group intelligence in bee swarms, etc. and how that type of behavior can help shed light on our own if only we are willing to investigate and understand what the data is telling us.


  10. When this kind of things go wrong it’s normally not because the computer is more intelligent but has become stupid and start to for instance to produce more paper clips than it should and hence flood the factory:-) In other words it’s all about the algorithm is constructed.


  11. I think we’re pretty safe for awhile Ken. I don’t believe that science will will be able to replicate human consciousness because the hallmarks features are the result of unpredictable nonlinear interactions of cells. Also, the human mind doesn’t comprehend itself. There’s seems be be that lurking “unknown” of the soul.


  12. Beth Niebuhr says:

    If we start with the premise that “we all would make the same decisions when faced with the same problems and having the same set of data,” then a computer could probably decide what needs to be done. Fortunately that isn’t the case. What a boring world this would be if that were the case. Of course all these changes happen gradually with the old folks hating it and young people taking them for granted.


  13. A smartphone that would tell me what to wear, interview or not, awesome! Would elminate a good 15-20 minutes out of my schedule everyday. lol And if it helped me get a job, even better. Now the reading your mind thing. Oh no. Polograph machines are bad enough. Can you imagine if there were computers that could actually READ your mind. Wow! That would be scary. Interesting, but scary.


  14. Adele Yuboco says:

    There’s no denying that technology has become very much an important part of our lives. However, I don’t think that people basing their choices and decisions simply through the use of computers is a vanishing breed. There are still a lot of decisions that we make, whether in business or in our personal lives were we still need to rely on our principles, intuition and knowledge. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I’ve heard of these apps that can replace writers, but I think their range is limited. For folks who want facts-only content, they may work, but it’s unlikely you’ll ever see a movie review written by an app. There’s still a good argument to be made for quality, insightful stories and articles. The medium in which they’re delivered is changing, but can you imagine a world without, say, the brilliant prose of Adam Gopnik?! Never …

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Andy says:

    I share your pessimism with respect to where all this is going, Ken. It has to be said that it’s just easier and a lot less stressful to let other people make your decisions for you and more generally run your life, and most Americans are going to choose to do that – they’re all too happy to be “on the leash”. Convenience über alles, indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. There’s a scene in the Will Smith movie, “I, Robot,” where Will asks the Robot if he can draw a Rembrandt (trying to prove he is decidedly NOT human) and the Robot responds: “Can you?” That goes back to Donna’s comment about the heart as a driver of us. I hope that is never replaced.

    That said, I have been misdirected by Zelda (our GPS) too many times and always pre-determine where I’m going with Google maps! Old school.


  18. Jason @ says:

    In my opinion we are headed for a disaster. Skynet will be here sooner than later.


  19. I often wondered about this myself. I sometimes think we are in an era of false technologies. We have technology that tells us about things and information which already exist, but besides these rehashing of this technology, making it faster or smaller, what have we created? We cannot even return to the moon, with our current technology, something we could do in the 1960’s.


  20. Very interesting take on this. And its true that every business is looking for ways (through technology) to become more efficient, effective, or faster and disseminating what they have to sell. But I think another way to look at it is to remember that we are simply trying to “play God” as some would put it. Assuming that we look at the human brain, mind, consciousness as a complex computer. We are simply trying to recreate it but better.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Pingback: Coding Our Future: What Becomes of Work? | off the leash

  22. pjlazos says:

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post. The moral implications of machining ourselves out also weighs heavily on me.

    Liked by 1 person

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