Most Overloads are More than We Can Handle

I continue to read The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World.

He is making me a believer in Machine Learning. But for reasons of my own that he never thought of.

He was speaking of the reasons companies go for Machine Learning.

First, everything is done with direct personal contact between the owners of the company and its customers. The little pulperia just down the street, operates this way – the husband and wife know their customers (including me) and know what they want to buy – and what their suppliers can give them to sell.

The next step is something of a shock – everything gets computerized. Tomorrow, I will go to a local payments service which has access to the computer of Banco National – and pay for my cell phone service – and for my health insurance, provided by CAJA, the National Health Service – which has its own computers – that do not always want to talk to the Banco National computers. If all goes well, I will give them my money – and they will me give receipts for my money. And all the computers will talk to each other.

But I can remember another computerization that was much more difficult. I worked for the FAA for 15 years – as a radar engineer. I knew everything about radars – especially the military radars – that were designed to protect us from Soviet bombers – that never existed.

At that time, the radar displays were projected on a large, flat, circular table in a dark room – and controllers watched these displays, and directed their airplanes using radio orders. Each controller was connected to the radio links for his airplanes. There were little plastic markers (called shrimp boats) with the identifier for each plane written on them with marker pens – that were pushed around as the airplanes moved. It worked fine, and everyone understood it.

Except for one thing – the controllers went to sleep after watching the display for awhile. I was watching once, as an observer – and saw a plane that exhibited a distress signal – is was a big signal and you could hardly miss – but I was the only one who saw it. I pointed it out to the controllers – who woke up and could see it.

The radar display was an example of overload – with so much boring information coming in, the human mind went to sleep. The solution was obvious – give the job to computers – that don’t get bored.

This was done – at great expense. The displays were now computer screens – huge things, three feet across and just as deep. If one of them imploded – and I was there when one of them did – the result sounded like an explosion – that woke everyone up – for sure!

On the screen, every plane was identified (with  its altitude shown) and tracked automatically. There were still a few controllers to make sure the computers didn’t screw up – which they sometimes did.

I was flying from Denver to Salt Lake City – when our plane was landed, by mistake, at the wrong airport! I looked out the window, all I could see was small airplanes – which make no sense. The engines were turned off, and our pilot and copilot were hurriedly escorted from the plane. We were then told buses would take us to the Salt Lake City International airport!

Later, I learned what had happened. When our plane descended rapidly to the small airport – radio contact was lost – and the air traffic controllers could not contact it. How a pilot and copilot could such a stupid mistake – no one could say. But they sometimes make stupid mistakes – with fatal consequences. Here again, the solution was obvious – get a computer to do it.

But two computers would be involved – one in the Traffic Control Center – and one in the airplane. Getting them to work together would not be easy. Once again, millions of dollars were spent – and are still being spent – while radars are being replaced by GPS signals.

And the latest airliners, with latest computers on them – still end up on the bottom of the ocean.

But the handwriting is one the wall – computers are going to take over more and more of our routine work. Lots of jobs are going away – and will never return.


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