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Let’s Have a Frank Discussion About Complexity December 7, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Algorithms, Machine Learning, Strategy, Uncategorized.
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And let’s start with the human memory.  “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” is one of the most highly cited papers in psychology.  The title is rhetorical, of course; there is nothing magical about the number seven.  But the paper and associated psychological studies explicitly define the ability of the human mind to process increasingly complex information.

The short answer is that the human mind is a wonderful mechanism for some types of processing.  We can very rapidly process a large amount of sensory inputs, and draw some very quick but not terribly accurate conclusions (Kahneman’s Type 1 thinking), we can’t handle an overwhelming amount of quantitative data and expect to make any sense out of it.

In discussing machine learning systems, I often say that we as humans have too much data to reliably process ourselves.  So we set (mostly artificial) boundaries that let us ignore a large amount of data, so that we can pay attention when the data clearly signify a change in the status quo.

The point is that I don’t think there is a way for humans to deal directly with a lot of complexity.  And if we employ systems to evaluate that complexity and present it in human-understandable concepts, we are necessarily losing information in the process.

This, I think, is a corollary of Joel Spolsky’s Law of Leaky Abstractions, which says that anytime you abstract away from what is really happening with hardware and software, you lose information.  In many cases, that information is fairly trivial, but in some cases, it is critically valuable.  If we miss it, it can cause a serious problem.

While Joel was describing abstraction in a technical sense, I think that his law applies beyond that.  Any time that you add layers in order to better understand a scenario, you out of necessity lose information.  We look at the Dow Jones Industrial Average as a measure of the stock market, for example, rather than minutely examine every stock traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

That’s not a bad thing.  Abstraction makes it possible for us to better comprehend the world around us.

But it also means that we are losing information.  Most times, that’s not a disaster.  Sometimes it can lead us to disastrously bad decisions.

So what is the answer?  Well, abstract, but doubt.  And verify.

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