How to think like a computer

How can we make a better decision? Tom Griffiths suggests that we should think like a computer. He starts by giving an example of finding a place to rent or buy in Sydney is difficult. In the competitive market, making an offer means you might lose out on a better option. The house-hunting dilemma is an example of an “optimal stopping” problem.

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Computer scientists have a solution and it goes like this. In order to maximize the probability of finding the best possible home, look at 37% of available accommodations and make an offer on the next place that is better than any you’ve already viewed. Or look for 37% of one month, 11 days, “to set a standard,” and then choose the best available option. 

The methods computers use to solve problems mimic how humans make decisions. Thus, applying computer science to everyday problems improves human decision making.

For example, choosing a restaurant employs what computer scientists call the “explore-exploit trade-off.”

Do you try something new (explore) or stay with something familiar (exploit)? If you’re in an area for a short time, pick the exploit option. However, if you’re dining in your neighbourhood, explore to gather the information that will inform future choices.

“The value of information increases the more opportunities you’re going to have to use it.”

Babies explore by tasting every new thing they encounter. Meanwhile, the old man who goes to the same restaurant and orders the same thing each time is exploiting a lifetime of knowledge.

“Human lives are filled with computational problems that are just too hard to solve by applying sheer effort. For those problems, it’s worth consulting the experts: computer scientists.”

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Computer science can even help you organize your closet. Most computers have a fast memory system with limited storage and a larger slow memory system. The most recently accessed data gets stored in the fast system, and the computer makes space by tossing something old into the slow memory system. Apply this principle to sorting your clothes by discarding items you haven’t worn for a long time. This convention works in the office, too. You’ve likely stacked that messy pile of papers on your desk according to how recently you used each document, with the most recent file sitting atop the pile.

“Computer science can help to make us more forgiving of our own limitations.”

These might seem trivial, but computer science also can help with life’s more difficult decisions. “The best algorithms are about doing what makes the most sense in the least amount of time.” Algorithms streamline information making it more manageable, and computers break big problems into smaller, simpler steps. The best approach such as the 37% rule of house hunting might produce the best solution given the circumstances.

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Your choice may not be perfect. But by doing so would be a tremendous help in making a better decision. Reminds me of Ray Dalio’s Principle.

It may overlook some options or involve settling for a satisfactory solution. But doing so is “what being rational means.”

Read Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions

READ MY OTHER BOOK SUMMARY AND REVIEW

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Author: Muhamad Aarif

A notorious book addict by night and an oil and gas executive by day. As Mark Twain said, "The man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them." So, read, read, and read some more.

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