Sunday, May 1, 2016

When is it time to stop?

Brian Christian again.  I have written about him and his book The Most Human Human, where he discussed the Alan Turing challenge to make a computer program that can act so human in what it types that judges will mistake the statements made as being from a human.  Christian has a new book, co-written with Tom Griffiths called "Algorithms to Live By".

If you learned to use a particular layout out with pencil and paper to do addition or long division, you learned an algorithm, a recipe, a formal procedure or method of solving a problem.

The first algorithm in the book is the secretary problem or the prince problem.  A boss hiring a secretary or a princess choosing a prince worries about when to stop interviewing and choose a person.  Stop too soon and you miss a great choice.  But when is too soon?  This is the subject of optimal stopping.

My first grad class was basic statistics.  I was charmed by what seemed magical.  A little adding and division, some squaring and subtracting and bingo!  The truth emerged from numbers!  Later, I decided I had invested my enthusiasm too soon.  Numbers, yes.  Insight, yes.  But magic - definitely not.  So, I am quite doubtful that I will employ more numbers to decide what to do.  I do buy the idea that understanding the algorithms used in computing and operations research and computer science may give me some new insights into my own thinking.

Every day I search among possibilities for the blog topic.  Every time we finish a book I am reading aloud or a tv series we have been watching, it is time for a new search.  Each new search is first a survey of candidates for selection and then a choice among them.  You know, like a US presidential election.  Similarly, what's for dinner? Think of a set of candidates and make a choice.

Just as with statistical analysis, there are explicit or implicit assumptions made in setting up a hiring or a princess/prince engagement that matter a great deal.  Alter the assumptions or procedures of the time frame or many other variables and you alter the whole operation in a fundamental way.  Can the boss go back and select someone he initially passed over?  Is the princess willing to become part of a harem?  Is she interested in marrying a prince who is dying?  Does her choice have to have a large amount of wealth?  Life is tricky but with enough machines and enough experimentation and enough thinking and thinking, maybe we will greatly improve our choosing.

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