I'm very grateful to Pam Heath for sending me her thoughts on my recent Hard Intangibles Update. With her permission, I reproduce it here a few comments:
Pam: I really like the idea of exploring cognitive hardness and cognitive capacity. It’s fascinating. I do wonder if the challenge of parallel computing is cognitive capacity per se or something more interesting. Which is probably your point. Doh. I wonder what else/something more is going on. Certainly since we probably haven’t thought/tested/experimented enough about cognitive capacity, then we haven’t yet thought about ways to compensate for/extend it.
Pierre: I haven’t gone much beyond the cognitive capacity yet. At this point I’m trying to narrow the focus, but I’m sure you’re onto something. The “something” may be related to cognitive limitations but in a more general way, e.g. cultural constructs.
Pam: My gut says that the field of computer science is severely limited by the people who practice it, and their brains – the mindsets, the particular kind of intelligence that they have, their personality traits. Do their brains work differently, I wonder, than visual artists or doctors or lawyers or anyone else?
Pierre: Howard Gardner did very influential work decades ago about learning styles that’s relevant here. People’s brains evidently do work somewhat differently. One of the tricky issues in my project is separating individual variation from generic Home Sapiens constraints. There’s a big difference between Einstein and the village idiot, and between Einstein and Picasso, but a bigger difference between any of them and a gibbon.
Pam: Do we have different types of consciousness? Does that bring anything to bear to the problem? What is cognitive capacity, really? Is it absolute? Is it really the number of connections that we can hold in our heads at one time, or something else? Is it a spinning plate problem, or something else?
Pierre: I’m sure there are different types of consciousness, because consciousness is compound. The current scientific consensus seems to be that consciousness is constructed concurrently in many brain areas, and in fact that most of the interesting thinking we do is pre-conscious. When it comes to “capacity,” that’s just a (collection of) metrics, e.g. the number of concurrent independent variables one can handle. Back to Gardner’s multiple intelligences: he showed pretty conclusively that IQ tests just measured linguistic and mathematical facility, and that there were at least five other important skills that IQ tests didn’t track.
Pam: I also wonder what the interplay of cognitive capacity and consciousness might be. Should we think of one as a subset of the other?
Pierre: You are asking the big questions, aren’t you? Speaking from almost complete ignorance, I’d venture that they’re partially overlapping. Animals that have less cognitive capacity than we do are also conscious, but not all capacity is in consciousness.
Pam: Has computer science been limited by the models it’s used to develop software and computer science approaches and concepts? For example, would a more consilient approach make big breakthroughs and paradigm shifts? What if dev teams/architects/etc included a broader range of types of thinkers?
Pierre: More diverse teams may lead to more breakthroughs, but will also have higher coordination overheads. Part of the trouble with “wicked problems” is the social complexity engendered by multiple stakeholders who can’t agree on the problem, let alone the solution.
Pam: If “intangibility and flexibility of software presents a qualitatively different cognitive challenge to most (all?) previous kinds of engineering,” then I guess we’ll need a different kind of engineer, won’t we? Maybe we should stop thinking about it as engineering at all.
Pierre: Perhaps, but not necessarily. We may just need to train them differently, give them specific tools, and manage our expectations.
Pam: Do the brains of various language speakers work differently from each other? Do the brains of Indian, Chinese, or any other nationality of developer work differently than European or American ones? Female vs. male developers? Do the brains of deeply consilient thinkers work differently? Are some cultures more cognitively hard than others? Does each culture have its own flavor of cognitive hardness?
Pierre: I very much doubt this. Sure, there are cultural differences in math and science performance (much greater than the gender differences which are de minimis, it turns out), but my assumption is that humans don’t vary that much. That said, cultures may have found different work-arounds, and we can surely learn a lot from looking across cultures, just as we can learn (as you suggested above) by looking at people with different aptitudes.
Pam: My bias is that if we leave resolving why parallel computing is hard to those who live naturally in that world it will take longer and be less satisfactory.
Pierre: Yes indeed. Iif we can answer “why is programming hard?” we’ll also be able to cast some light on questions like “why is IPR hard?” and “why is international policy hard?”
Pam: Your proposed threads nag at me somehow. They sound logical, but incomplete. Ah, maybe because they’re all couched in terms of limitations and difficulties, and not the opposite. Trying on both approaches might give more interesting and, dare I say, valuable results.