Monthly Archives: March 2012

You Get What You Measure

One of my graduate school professors was well known in our class for what he called his Behaviorists Bowling Team shirt. According to him, it says “You get what you measure” across the front, and “The best predictor of future performance is past performance” on the back. The second saying has only limited application (if it were completely true, there’d be no point in practicing something, as you’d never get any better.) However, the problem of getting what you measure is like the third law of thermodynamics: you can’t get out of the game.

Consider for example this story about police surveillance cameras being installed in Toledo. As the victim of three break-ins (one attempted), I think the cameras are a good idea to counteract the effects of fewer officers patrolling the streets. Data-driven policing, however, is another matter — search for “compstat” on this page and you’ll see what I mean. The short version: if the data show the frequency and severity of crimes going up, the pressure comes on to bring the numbers down. Unfortunately, there’s two ways of doing so: by arresting and prosecuting the criminals (hard), or by under-reporting crimes and/or intentionally mis-classifying them as less severe than they actually are (easy.) Guess what actually happens.

Hello Robots, Goodbye Civil Society

The TerminatorRobots can operate 24/7/365. They don’t complain about the work environment, don’t ask for raises, and don’t get paid extra for overtime. They don’t form unions, ask for promotions, require health insurance, or play office politics. They’re never late for work or inappropriately dressed, and they’re patently incapable of theft, sexual harassment, or discrimination. And they’re getting smarter, faster, and (here’s the important part) able to do very complicated things only humans could do before. It’s my prediction that, much sooner than most people realize, there will be a robot designed to do virtually any job that currently requires a high school education. And they’ll be cheap enough that leasing enough of them to replace hourly workers will be a no-brainer for business owners.

Consider for example this recent article in the WSJ about the use of robots in hospitals. They are already replacing the janitorial and housekeeping staff because they cost half as much. I’ve been reading in IEEE’s blogs about robots that can build structures (even from the air), stock warehouses,  and drive cars, and they’re working on farming robots that can identify and pick ripe fruits and vegetables. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to see where this is going.

If it turns out that some jobs are just too difficult for a robot, telepresence robots will allow low-wage workers in other parts of the world to do manual labor in the U.S. from wherever they are. Will there be opportunities in robot maintenance? I’ll predict that there will even be robots that can diagnose and repair other robots in the not-to-distant future.

When you put this phenomenon together with the incredible imprisonment rate in the US, there’s going to be an awful lot of poorly-educated young people with criminal backgrounds who have nothing better to do than sit around and get pissed that they have no future. Put that together with the massive quantity of firearms in this country and the relative ease with which they can be obtained, and the only reasonable conclusion is that we’re sitting on a powder keg. We need to start thinking now about what we’re going to do about it.

UPDATE: Robots can now debone chickens, according to the Wall Street Journal.

UPDATE: Robots can now construct homes and buildings, according to

UPDATE: Robots are taking over manufacturing jobs in China, according to R&D Magazine.

Save Your Comments For The Blog

I had an epiphany the other day, right when I was about to write up an extensive comment on an article at another site. It occurred to me that, if it was important enough for me to go through the hassle of opining somewhere else, I might as well make it a blog post instead. As an added bonus, this obviates the problem of having to come up with material, the lack of which (for those of you who haven’t tried this yet) presents a serious challenge to a blogger.

Consider for example this article, where the author argues that data derived from split (or A/B) testing “never lies.” I was about to lay down the law* in a comment about the philosophy of science (knowledge of which I acquired through numerous arguably wasted but reasonably entertaining years in grad school), when I realized that I’d be spending an inordinate amount of time creating material that a) very few people would read, and b) fewer still would associate it with me. Whereas, if it’s on my blog, presumably visitors are there to read the articles, and it’s easy for them to find out who I am.

For those of you who aren’t bloggers, I’d encourage you to leave your comments below. The rest of you should know what to do by now.

*Data without theory, while interesting (and a useful starting point) is essentially meaningless, because you can’t replicate the results. In other words, just because you flip a coin and get heads ten times in a row, you might not want to bet against tails simply based on the outcome of your previous observations unless you have a specific reason (such as you suspecting the coin has two heads) to believe you’ll be correct. If you don’t have a belief to be falsified (e.g., “I bet they’ll like this design best because…”), you can’t make forward progress in ferreting out the variables that determine why a particular design is better than another, and you’ll end up going around in circles on design decisions.

See what I mean? Blogging material!

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