Your computer and you

If you are reading this post, you are likely reading it on a computer. The computer responds to your typing and clicking and allows you to find information which exists somewhere far away. Some of that information was sent specifically to you (e.g., your email), and some of that information was available to anyone who knew where to look (e.g., this blog post). Here the computer is a communication tool, and gets information from other people to you.

While typing an email, maybe you have spell-correct on – every word that you type is checked in the dictionary, and when it doesn’t appear in the dictionary the word is highlighted and suggestions for the correct spelling appear. The computer isn’t doing anything you didn’t know how to do – you might not know how to spell every word, but with enough time you could have looked up every word in the dictionary – it’s impractical but not impossible.

If you couldn’t find your word in the dictionary however, how would you have tried to discover the right spelling? The way the computer does it is to compare your word against all the words in the dictionary and then display the words that are most similar. The number that is used for describing similarity (the Levenshtein disctance) is calculated in a very clever way, and so the computer can do this quite fast. This part takes many more steps than just trying to find every word in the dictionary, and is quite impossible to do by hand.

When it comes to physical work, the difference between describing how to do something and actually doing it is quite obvious. Imagining in my head how I would carry an empty bucket down the stairs and carry back a bucket full of water takes no effort and no time, while actually doing it would cause me much physical strain and about 20 minutes.

Mental work is the same. If I gave you two 10-digit numbers, I’m pretty sure you would know how to multiply them using just a piece of paper. Again, there is a distinction between knowing how to do it and actually doing it. I can be pretty confident of multiplying two numbers together with a piece of paper even though I don’t yet know what the answer is.

We have a name for the symbolic work that is done when we know how to get an answer and are merely following those steps and actually finding out what the answer is. We call it computation, and it is what your computer does well.

A manager’s job includes knowing how to instruct and delegate. A manager uses his time efficiently by teaching an employee how to do something and being able to do something else while the employee is doing the thing.

Computers have made this type of work more common for non-managers – if you can describe precisely all the simple steps that need to be done then you can save time as you will only have to spend time describing new tasks while the computer handles all the repetition.

Related reading: School for quants

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