Stamatakis: Computer’s won’t completely replace humans

By Nick Stamatakis

Everybody grab something quick: The crazies at Facebook are changing their website again,… Everybody grab something quick: The crazies at Facebook are changing their website again, swapping the familiar layout for a new vertical time-ribbon layout. Instead of a modest homepage, our profiles will soon become computer-generated archives of everything we’ve ever done.

The social aspect of this is fine by me — it’ll probably make people’s creeping more efficient in the long run. But the design element demonstrates that Facebook is cementing its transition away from computer-aided design to fully computerized design.

Humans, after all, play no role in how the final product looks. While this was true of the old Facebook too, the new layout’s code makes much larger decisions about spacing and prioritization than before, while limiting users’ ability to generate groups, cards, etc. Aside from the content, everything is determined by an algorithm. Similar processes have been in effect for years on the Internet — Google search results are computer-guided — but not in such a personal and pervasive fashion.

All this seems to reinforce the idea that humans are becoming obsolete. Computers can determine a less-than-24-hour transportation route for a package from Tuscaloosa to Tallahassee far more efficiently than a human could. ATMs, machine-driven assembly lines and even self-checkout stations are pushing people into unemployment. And in Facebook’s case, a computer controls page layout: Its clean, uniform placement of text and pictures contrasts sharply with MySpace-style chaos or even the old Facebook design.

But before you run screaming from your computer, a sterling counterexample to this trend can be found in the efforts of David Imus, an American cartographer who recently completed a new map of the United States without using algorithms to specify fonts, text position or colors. Investing 6,000 labor hours over two years to complete the map, Imus made practically every decision that went into its creation. In a world where computers typically govern everything, his feat is equivalent to transcribing the Bible without a word processor.

The final result is breathtaking (if maps are your thing).Rather than just listing more-populous cities over less-populated cities, Imus specifically took into consideration aesthetics, population and cultural importance. Letter-spacing and typographical displays vary, sacrificing uniformity and accuracy for the sake of clarity. And although the map isn’t hand-drawn, human decisions do lead to a “richer portrait” of, for example, Chicago’s culture and geography, according to a Slate article.

This brings us back to Facebook. While the new layout is modern and uniform, you can see how some of the automatic adjustments aren’t quite right. Considering how much value human judgment brought to a map — which at its heart is nothing more than a Facebook page of a region — it’s clear how much case-by-case judgments could improve these timeline layouts.

For instance, if a picture is largely blue, is it really best for the background to be blue as well? Would the giant blocks that frame mobile uploads of funny road signs really make the cut? How about the algorithmically determined margins and squashes?

The lesson here is that there are limitations to computing that provide hope for soon-to-be graduates. Algorithms can do many things better than employees, but some tasks will remain forever out of their reach. While a computer might try to take into account data points like list views, comments and word use when prioritizing posts, it can’t observe the difference between a status announcing an engagement and a sarcastic remark about a pierogi. Some things are just categorically different from others.

Take chicken butts, for instance. In the 1930s, the Japanese needed a method for quickly sorting male chicks from female chicks just by observing their “rear vent,” as it’s called in the business. Author David Eagleman recounts in his book “Incognito” that the sexes looked so similar, even professional sorters were flummoxed when asked to explain the difference. Yet with experience, they could differentiate them with astonishing accuracy, solely using the brain’s ability to self-correct from trial and error.

Computers can of course adapt to these behaviors, but only by mimicking how humans decide between males and females. And given that most jobs entail more complicated tasks than determining gender, it’s little wonder that they’re not even close to replacing most decision makers — analyst positions, for instance, are opening dramatically above national averages, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. People are always needed to guide progress and improve the world.

So although Facebook’s new design seemingly foreshadows the supremacy of computing, remember that, unlike former page formats, the people they represent will not become obsolete.

Contact Nick at [email protected]