One of the distinctive features of Web 2.0, I’ve felt, is an understanding that humans are very good at certain things, computers are really good at different things, and groups of people are good at yet other things; and that creating systems that combine individual, machine, and collective intelligence will be powerful– more powerful than, for example, software that tries to mimic human capabilities.
Today, while reading Bill Leslie’s brilliant article, “Blue Collar Science,”* on Western Electric’s efforts to commercialize the transistor and integrated circuit– a category of work that, he argues, is just as important in the history of R&D as the more famous and detached style of research that we normally think of as “R&D”– I came across this 1964 quote by Eugene Anderson, a Bell Labs researcher:
[H]ighly complex assembly machines… are always expensive and are extremely specialized. A change in design or technology can turn a beautiful machine into a boat anchor overnight. We tend to forget that while labor costs are high, so is the cost of capital. We are finding that simple tools coupled with the sensing, judging and tactile abilities of people are often more desirable than complex machinery. It is very difficult to make a machine that has the eyeball sensory abilities or is as smart as even a scatterbrained 18-year old… at least for the same cost and flexibility.
A similar kind of relationship between human and machine, which recognizes that symbiotic systems can sometimes do better work, more cheaply, than ones that try to cut humans out of the loop.
* Stuart W. Leslie, “Blue collar science: Bringing the transistor to life in the Lehigh Valley,” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Science 32:1 (2001), 71-113.