April 19, 2015

Can we learn to think from computers?


We talk a lot about computers learning to think like humans. But maybe sometimes humans can benefit from thinking like computers?

Our life is made up of decisions. We make decisions every minute. Some are small, some are big. A lot of our decisions happen automatically, we don’t notice them. Yet sometimes we get stuck.

How do we make decisions? A lot of the times we just know what the right decision is. It happens through intuition. Intuition is a subconscious phenomenon, where our mind gathers information without us consciously realizing it, and offers a ready answer disguised as a ‘feeling’ or a hunch. Some people can tell whether a new colleague will be successful or not just by glancing at them. There are many stories how intuition saves lives of solders during wars, where a hunch warns about a coming attack or an ambush.

Trouble is, intuition can’t always help.

People differ in their ability to use intuition. But most importantly, intuition only helps when you are in a situation that you faced before, when you have experience. If a situation is unlike anything you faced before, intuition won’t help.

Computers, however, have no intuition. They work by going through all possible scenarios and assessing each alternative by grading it using pre-defined criteria.

This leads to interesting outcomes. When computers were given a task of playing games, they found some winning scenarios which weren’t previously used by humans (such as, sink a submarine and do nothing in a submarine computer game). Because humans have expectations from earlier experience, and because a game is designed with real life in mind, some winning strategies are counter-intuitive. Yet this is not a problem for a computer.

How does this translate into practice?

A lot of the times we are stuck when we need to decide. The feeling of frustration coming from not being able to choose stops us from exploring a decision, we obsess about the alternatives we already know about and repeat the same thoughts over an over again, without making any progress.

When this happens, remember how computers decide, by looking objectively at all options available.

Sometimes a decision is a simple choice between two alternatives. Do I stay home or do I go out? Do I walk or do I take a bus? If there isn’t a clear advantage to choosing one or the other and if the decision is not too important, just flip a coin. Make a random decision and stick to it – making a mistake in this case is far better than wasting time agonizing about what to do next.

If it’s a complex decision and there are many potential outcomes, detach yourself mentally from the situation. This would allow to get rid of frustration and impatience that are blocking your decision-making. Then concentrate on exploring all potential solutions, trying to cast a wider net and not limit yourself to previous experiences and conventional wisdom. Once you do that, chances are a solution you haven’t thought about will come along, and your intuition will kick in telling you that this is the solution you should go for.

A very useful technique for exploring all aspects of a decision is to ask the following four questions:

1. What benefit am I getting from doing this?

2. What are the disadvantages of doing this?

3. What are the benefits from not doing this?

4. What are the disadvantages of not doing this?

Going through these questions will allow you to look at the situation from all angles, and most likely this alone will push you into thinking over possibilities you haven’t considered before.

As always, a bonus book suggestion if you would like to explore the subject further:

It's only fair to share...Tweet about this on Twitter
Share on LinkedIn
Share on Facebook