Analysis‎ > ‎

How to unbound bounded rationality


People are only somewhat rational [1] - we all know this from our very self. How often we find ourselves trapped in a habit we crave to break, or in an uninspired, almost subconscious state where life floats away, untouched. How hard it is to consciously steering the self! How daunting to continually setting goals and resolutions, and then forgetting about them, slowly, loosing sight, observing yourself at a later point: „Oh yes, this used to be a thing for me. It still is, but when and why did I lose the urge?“ Not being able to live in line with your true intentions is for sure one of the most paralyzing facts about life. I bet the resulting cognitive dissonances have shattered quite a few people.

Times might change for the better though. Ubiquitous computing has set us up with powerful computing devices - in their best form, these are able to function as cognitive exoskeletons [2]: Where is the next barber shop? When does my bus leave? What is the dollar/euro exchange rate? Even largely complicated calculations and queries are often only one or two swipes away. How to learn C++? Why do cats have whiskers? All paintings by Vincent van Gogh? Violent conflicts in 2015 on subnational level? Higher derivatives of the Riemann zeta function?

50 years ago, it was likely that the next potential Einstein was an underprivileged child not going to school, never tapping into her full potential. But today? General education is improving, and so is the access to information. Little Einstein might have gone to some decent classes, and can now connect to the collective knowledge database of Homo Sapiens known as the internet. Unfortunately, the glassy helpers in our pockets have become a constant source of management themselves, disturbing rather than aiding. The cure for cancer or a combined theory of gravity and quantum mechanics might now be trapped in the mind of a gifted student who is unable to get rid of everyday distractions and consumptive, uncreative yet completely avoidable misbehavior.

Think about this. She might be right now on the web, browsing to inspirational talks, seeing Richard Feynman or reading about Rachel Carson, leaving her with the impression that there is profoundly more to the world to explore. Yet, with all of us being poor mind managers, her intentions erode. Briskly. As all ours do. She is not to blame, but has gotten uncomfortably introduced to that icky feeling of unrelieved ambition. And the problem can be much more mundane… It’s that message you wanted to write for weeks. That dentist appointment you have to make. Calling Mom more often. Finally going to the gym. Why do intention have to erode at all? And what can be done about this?

Current software-based personal assistants are fine, but not more. In principle, they still work like pen and paper calendars and to-do-lists. Neither have they taken advantage of the latest advances in context aware computing, nor have they caught up with the latest research of behavioral economist and psychologists on how to nudge people to take up on their desired actions [3]. Current technical improvements focus on bettering the managers to make it easier to search and combine information (take the example of Siri), but those queries are already easy enough! Everybody can do a quick online search in a matter of seconds, so there is only marginal utility in issuing an algorithm to do that for you. 

Access to information and extracting the valuable pieces are not the main restrictions in bettering livelihoods, health, and the ability to transform the world anymore - it is the capacity to manage our minds to act on the new-found myriad of insights. Yet, none of the services in place assist in what to search, and in what to do. I think we should work on this.

[1] D Kahneman - „Thinking, fast and slow.“ Macmillan (2011)

[2] T Harris - „How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds“

[3] RH Thaler, CR Sunstein - „Nudge : improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness.“ Penguin Books (2009)