Guesswork, feedback, and impact

The way we get most complicated things done might be described as trial and error: we have some model of how a plan will lead to our desired goal, we try and implement the plan and discover that some aspect of our model was wrong, and then we refine the model and try again.

For example, if you write a large program it will have bugs in it (unless you have written very many programs before). If you try to run a business, your initial plans will probably fail (though a simple business plan might stick around as many details of the business are tweaked). If you try to build a machine, it won’t work unless you have quite a bit of relevant experience (e.g. building a similar machine before).

Unless a plan’s success rests on very simple arguments—for example, comparisons with similar plans that have worked before—it is likely to get thwarted by some unanticipated detail. (If there are implicitly N things that could go wrong with a plan, most of which you may not have thought of, then each one needs to go wrong with probability around 1/N for the whole thing to hold together. That’s pretty confident, for complicated domains in which many things might go wrong.) However, if we can try a plan and implicitly ask Nature “What were we wrong about? How will we fail now?” then the situation is changed. We can determine where our model of the world is wrong,  patch that particular error and repeat. Even if our model was wrong in many places, and even if we can never hope to build a complete model, at least we can eventually get a model which is right in the relevant ways.

Unfortunately, if we want to have a positive impact ont he world, we almost never get to test all of the relevant aspects of our world model. I think it’s useful to split up plans into two parts: Read the rest of this entry »

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