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Judging a computer algorithm

Does your GPS have a name?

Years ago when I bought the first GPS unit for our family we gave it a name within a week. There was a human voice. That voice gave us instructions and told us when we made mistakes and needed to correct our route. It was like having a live person in the car with us. The kids liked the naming process because we tried to match a name with the voice that came from the device.nuvi-265wt

But something else happened.

We started to rate the instructions we received from the device. We would get a little excited when we knew multiple ways to navigate a route and preferred another option from what the GPS determined to be the best route. We would talk to the device as if it could understand us and tell it that we knew a better way. We would stay on the larger interstate when the GPS wanted us to exit and drive on smaller two-lane roads. .

But why?

It’s just an algorithm in a computer program. It’s performing math calculations to determine the shortest route between two distances. This particular version of the GPS did not have current information related to traffic patterns that factored into the algorithm. Yet we wanted to treat the unit like a person. We judged the instructions and the outcome and expected the GPS to know about new roads and road detours.

Do we judge algorithm mistakes differently than we judge human mistakes?

There was a recent story on NPR from Shankar Vedantam in which he discusses research from the University of Pennsylvania about human’s use of algorithms. The research found that humans will typically stop using a computer algorithm after they experienced a mistake even though the computer algorithm was less likely to make a mistake than a human counterpart.

Vedantam goes on to discuss that algorithms are getting smarter and more complex. They learn from mistakes. They have the ability to make decisions based on a variety of inputs. So it’s illogical to judge the algorithm more harshly than a human but yet it feels so natural to many people.

Do we feel threatened by algorithms? Perhaps movies like The Matrix or Ex Machina make us more aware of just what a truly learning algorithm could be like. Maybe that’s what influences us to judge simple computer programs more harshly.

I will say this.

When the GPS takes us on a tangent, I’m always the one saying “Trust her. She’s always gets us there.”  I stand by her instructions even though she’s taken me to a few dead-end roads.

But I’ve never trusted Siri. :-O

Onward and upward!

Four devices I still use and why

These are a few of my favorite things

“Smartphones”, as they are called today, do so many tasks I’m not sure why they are still called a phone. Think about how much time you spend talking with your smartphone.  If you’re like me and everyone I know, you use your device more for computing and data tasks than talking. I’ll admit they are amazing devices and do make it possible to eliminate other electronics in our lives. But I still enjoy using some of my other electronic devices. I will use my smartphone to capture video, get directions, read, and listen to music for impromptu moments. But if I have time to plan ahead, you’ll probably see me with one these devices.

The Flip
Cisco announced they would discontinue the Flip back in 2011 which quickly inspired a list of alternatives. I love the Flip for quick and convenient videos. The device is small (about the same size as my SmartPhone!) and it’s simple to use.  To take basic video all I have to do is push one red button. It auto-focuses and adjusts for lighting. It confuse me with a bunch of settings that I don’t know how to use. Simple, compact, and decent video. Love it.

The Garmin Nuvi
My family uses this device frequently. It seems there is always a new destination in our schedule and the little Nuvi provides directions to get us there. We can use the smartphone GPS, but the passenger often wants to use their device for other activities and who wants to run the battery down? The little Garmin we have is a basic GPS unit. But the basics are all I want from a GPS device. Tell me how to get from point A to point B. It’s good at that. Simple and focused wins again.

The iTouch
I’m too cheap to pay for an iPhone and the associated data plan (and I’m not drinking the Apple Kool-aid). But I do have an iTouch. I use this device occasionally to evaluate an iOS application, but more often I use it to play music and podcasts while I run. I know, I could use my smartphone for music. I did that once and dropped it while tying my shoe. The screen shattered. With my iTouch, I already have an arm-band so it reduces the risk of dropping it. Unlike the Flip and Garmin, this device is multi-dimensional. But I keep it simple and dedicated. Besides, I don’t want a phone call to interrupt my runs.

The Kindle
I have one of the original kindles. While Amazon is making the new readers with more features, I still like the basic Kindle. It does one thing for me and that is allow me to focus on the book content. There are no popups, noises, or other things to distract me from reading. It’s just me and the book (or other content). Simple. Focused. eReader.