By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Brian Christian, Tom Griffiths
Narrated by: Brian Christian
“A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” explains that the ultimate answer to the meaning of life is 42; however, Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths tell us it is 37. “Algorithms to Live By” explains that if you want to have an optimum answer to a complex question, it will take 37% of an allotted amount of time to study the known and unknown details of a question to come up with an optimum answer. Keep in mind, this is not a perfect answer but a probabilistically calculated optimum answer; i.e. an answer based on what is known and unknown.
If you sit at a poker table for three hours, the first hour should be used to gather information about your competition. You will never know everything you need to know to win a hand of poker. But, you will improve your chances of winning by taking slightly more than 1/3rd of your time gathering information about the way your competitors play. This is a simplistic way of looking at Christian’ and Griffiths’ explanation of human decision-making. The authors identify the discoverer of this algorithm as Merrill Flood, an American mathematician who, with Melvin Dresher, came up with the Prisoner’s dilemma, a model of cooperation and conflict.
The Prisoner’s dilemma is the story of two robbers that are placed in separate sells, interrogated independently, and offered a deal if they will rat on their associate. The example given by the authors is that these robbers could rat on each other to get a reduced sentence. The consequence of their confession would be to serve a shorter sentence but, per Christian and Griffiths, they can reap the reward of their robbery when released. In that circumstance, the authors suggest everyone loses; no one wins. However, they argue the game can be changed. The example given is the introduction of a Mafia leader that says they will be murdered if they rat on each other. The introduction of this new variable changes the probability of the outcome.
The 37% factoid offers truth but fails to give much more comfort to one seeking knowledge about life than the number 42. The authors suggest it is considerably better than knowing nothing but the complexity of life makes outcomes entirely probabilistic. Even though, one presumes–the more you know, the better your decisions will be. Au contraire; i.e. Christian and Griffith note that too much information can skew the probability of truth to greater error.
With computers and the internet, one would think truth would be easier to find. However, Christian and Griffith imply–computers offer added complexity; not truth to humanity’s search for meaning. They argue computers are only tools for revealing complexity. In other words, 37% is the best we can do in getting to the truth of answers about complex questions. In fact, the authors suggest there is a point of diminishing return; i.e. too many accumulated facts can distort the truth, and take one farther away from a 37% probability. A recent example is statistical sampling concluding Hillary Clinton would be the next President of the United States.
There is much more in Christian and Griffiths exploration of algorithms but it is disheartening to realize human search for truth is constrained by a 37% boundary.
This is an enlightening exploration of the world of algorithms and computer science. On the one hand, it suggests human intuition is highly valuable; on the other, it explains why it is unwise to rely on instinct alone, or the complex algorithms created by computers.
Some useful tools for life’s management are explained but there is a ring of truthiness in their conclusions.
(NOTE: Jay Wright Forrester died Nov. 16th—one of the pioneers of system dynamics that attempted to model complex interactions between the world economy, population, and ecology.)