The untapped potential of human programming (2022)


80 points | by jasonnchann 13 days ago


  • nathan_compton 12 days ago
    I have to say I'm viscerally turned off by the language here. Perhaps even the idea, although there is obviously nothing objectionable about helping people reach their own goals, per se.

    The problem here is that this whole angle on human life seems to have forgotten that efficiency, productivity, etc are all there to help us find more time to live in a world where those things don't matter. To have leisure. To think unstructured, non-goal directed thoughts. You don't need "programming" to be human.

    The other thing here is that this stuff is just what humans in all societies and organizations have been working on forever. We have collective and personal goals and we have all sorts of systems to reach them. We do research on how effective they are already. We do A/B testing. Not sure what calling this collective activity "human programming" accomplishes.

    • steve1977 12 days ago
      > The problem here is that this whole angle on human life seems to have forgotten that efficiency, productivity, etc are all there to help us find more time to live in a world where those things don't matter.

      In reality, it’s there to help capital owners not care about these things anymore.

    • nickpeterson 12 days ago
      I’ve had this argument a lot with people. The goal of technology should be to adapt to humans and free up time. I feel like instead we keep asking people to further adapt to the needs of the system/machine. Keyboards are a great example. We should just write as people have done for thousands of years. Machines would then read what we write and understand it and then use that digitized info.

      The problem is that it’s quite difficult, and machines decades ago simply couldn’t do that, so now we all type on keyboards all day (digital or physical). It’s reached the point where my children no longer have to learn cursive handwriting in school, because what is the point since everything goes into the computer via a keyboard? This strikes me as incredibly short sighted and backwards. I think it’s hurting us long term.

      • nine_k 12 days ago
        > Keyboards are a great example. We should just write as people have done for thousands of years

        Nope, nope, nope. Keyboards are a great thing that save a lot of effort and muscle strain. I did my fair share of handwriting, and I experienced the strain and tiredness firsthand (ha). This is to say nothing of the speed.

        Ergonomic keyboards make things even easier.

        So no, we don't always want faster horses, and the heritage of thousands of years often happens to be a yoke.

        • nickpeterson 12 days ago
          I don’t know, I’m pretty dubious that the problems of the future are grossly aided by faster input. I feel like I think better when I write than when I type, I find that really hard to ignore.
          • majormajor 12 days ago
            I think and write much better on a modern computer than when writing by hand. And much better than I would on a typewriter.

            Don't underestimate the ability to revise multiple times.

            At the same time, I design better with a pencil than with Sketchup or LucidCharts or something, for similar "draft then modify" reasons. But that pencil could be "real" on a paper or it could be on a tablet.

          • nine_k 12 days ago
            Writing by hand is just slower, so it gives more time to think.

            Jotting and doodling, on the other hand, is important to improve thinking, from my experience. It's just mostly not about text.

      • h_r 12 days ago
        I have mixed feelings about the various arguments I see raised in the comments. It seems crazy to me to insist that efficiency and productivity gains via technology have, as their proper goal, a world in which none of that matters. Freeing up time in this way benefits us as individuals as well. Just staying alive and entertaining ourselves requires goal-directed behavior. I like not having to spend hours cooking food daily on an open fire.

        Your argument about keyboards struck me in just this way - it's a mistake to assume that we should stick with the status quo and have machines adapt to us. After all, writing on paper (or with a digital stylus) is just another iteration of improving the technology. Nobody wants to pound symbols into stone with a chisel, for example.

        I can type much faster than I can write cursively and it would be incredibly painful to revert to such writing. Natural language speech input can improve a lot of things vs typing, but I think writing code - for as long as it lasts - would be tricky to implement well using our voices.

      • layer8 12 days ago
        Physical keyboards are at a near optimum for symbolic input, for the same reason that many musical instruments are operated by keys, and the standard interface for entering notes is a (musical) keyboard. Due to how our fingers work and having ten of them, this is the most efficient and precise way for humans to enter symbolic information.
      • ruined 12 days ago
        you're shortsighted—handwriting also is a technological compromise.

        natural language interaction is perhaps the main focus of modern machine learning research.

    • majormajor 12 days ago
      The goal of productivity, efficiency, etc, to provide survival is a much older one than the goal of it to provide leisure.

      What to do when everyone can have survival and their material needs met is, I think, actually not something people agree on at all.

      (And personally I don't think we are at that point yet, in terms of health and medical understanding.)

      • dmn322 12 days ago
        I think that’s based purely on your assumptions. Elephants chill and play and splash in the water when they reach the water on the west coast of Africa after migrating across the continent.

        They’re not the only animals doing this kind of thing. Animals not in captivity generally seem to enjoy their lives. Deprive an animal of dopamine and it will surely start to wither away.

        If you’re talking about humans, i find it very difficult to believe governments predate chilling with your friends with some palm wine or something.

        Pleasure was an integral part of life until the accidental AI that is capitalism started manipulating human behavior for its own survival.

        • majormajor 12 days ago
          I would say leisure was "for free" for humans too but was often traded for productivity for survival, which was more precarious.

          I found the book Metropolis to be a good history of that in the form of "what did cities look like over the years" - cities were dirty, crowded, less healthy, etc, than a lot of alternative lifestyles but they also supplied the material essentials in predictable and more reliable ways.

          If physical survival was easy to do leisurely then there wouldn't have been the motivation for more complex forms of society (many of which had very-unfun roles for many participants long before capitalism).

          • dmn322 11 days ago
            "then there wouldn't have been the motivation for more complex forms of society" <-- not sure I agree with this one. I think the problem is less that physical survival is difficult to do leisurely and more that some people will keep trying to make it easier on themselves, even if that means making it harder on you. In a way that's the same things as what you're saying, but just a slightly different shade. It's not inherently difficult, but just inevitably becomes difficult.

            Anyway, your mention of the motivation for more complex forms of society reminds me of this book which it seems like you might like. If you're vaguely interested but probably not going to read it I can summarize, but I don't want to spoil it if you think you'd read it:

    • amelius 12 days ago
      Advertising is a type of human programming, and I want to stay away from it.
    • 1MachineElf 12 days ago
      You may find Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash cyberpunk novel an interesting read. It could be considered a cautionary tale exploring the concept of human programming.
    • rr808 12 days ago
      > The problem here is that this whole angle on human life seems to have forgotten that efficiency, productivity, etc are all there to help us find more time to live in a world where those things don't matter. To have leisure.

      This is patently untrue. People in rich countries work the same or more than people in poor countries. Most people working full time could live perfectly well on a tenth their wage. Its a human condition that people want more.

      • hanoz 12 days ago
        > Most people working full time could live perfectly well on a tenth their wage.

        Now that is patently untrue. For most people 10% wouldn't come close to paying the rent alone.

        • rr808 12 days ago
          I didn't say they would be able to live in the same space, they'd have to share with family, and/or cram into one room and/or live in a poorly built house, like people in poorer countries do, and we did 150 years ago.
          • hanoz 12 days ago
            I take you point, but even then it wouldn't be enough.
      • golergka 12 days ago
        People in rich countries work at much more fulfilling and enjoyable jobs. Most of my white collar friends, both in it and outside are passionate about what they do.
  • eternityforest 12 days ago
    The problem is essential complexity. Or at least that would be if we were computers. "The thing you want to do is hard" might be a better description.

    When was the last time an automated flowchart script help line actually helped you?

    If something is hard it's probably because one or more steps are hard by themselves, or because actually doing it requires multiple simultaneous actions in real time without gaps to look things up, or because there's an insane number of steps. People have learned from books for centuries, if you can't learn it from existing media,it's probably just a really hard task.

    Like, guitar is hard because it's all about repeatable physical motions, you don't have time to carefully inspect your fingers to see whether it will sound acceptable when you strum.

    Drawing is hard because it seems to involve a mental image that is so clear and stable one can use it as a reference, plus the ability to translate points in (Real or imagined 3D) space to points on a page.

    Troubleshooting tech is hard because of the number of things to go wrong, almost always not covered in the manual, because if the designers knew they couhave prevented it, leading to Google being the best tool, and full teardown, deep understanding, and reverse engineering often being needed if that fails.

  • treetoppin 12 days ago
    While I appreciate the subject matter, I think ignoring the prior art of checklist design and human factors engineering is a big oversight. I don’t know enough about either field to know what tools they are using in the process of designing instruction manuals, time critical check lists, or diagnostic and troubleshooting guides, but I imagine that would be a very good place to start. I will say though that bringing analog checklists into a multimedia world is an intriguing direction, since being able to access an expanded checklist that enables you to see details, infographics, etc when you want to dive into a specific step while also allowing you to track your current place in a process would be pretty cool.
  • navane 12 days ago
    How about design the coffee maker so I don't need a program to use it?

    We have a water dispenser at work which can dispense regular, chilled, carbonated and cooking water. It has a printed out laminated instruction sheet next to it, because it all works with a combination of twisting a ring left or right, pushing it up or down, and I believe there is a handle too. That's bad design.

    This is the reverse of "automate anything that can be automated", this is bringing the humans back in a step by step process.

    • esperent 12 days ago
      > How about design the coffee maker so I don't need a program to use it?

      The coffee machine is just an example, don't get hung up on it. If you think all possible coffee machines should be made so simple that they don't need instructions (1), then mentally replace it with a machine that you can accept will need instructions, like a 3D printer or a CNC lathe or whatever.

      (1) a fallacy in itself because even if you are a genius who finds every well designed machine obvious to use, there are plenty of us who are not geniuses and require instructions even for the simplest of mechanisms.

    • mikrl 12 days ago
      A coworking space I visit has a little (digital) foot pedal for their water fountain
  • Keeo 12 days ago
    Every time I am cooking sometig from the recipe I first need to translate it from the long text to a chart where one axis is time and second is what to do.
  • DeathArrow 13 days ago
    Human programming is easy until you reach the async, concurrent and parallel parts. Then you have to catch lots of exceptions and log the call stack. :)
    • dr_dshiv 12 days ago
      And the copy-pasting of errors into chatGPT can result in carpal-tunnel syndrome really quickly!
  • r-bar 12 days ago
    I think human programming is not untapped at all. This is describing every line of business application in existence. A great example of both the power and limitations of this is phone trees for customer support.

    A product team and dev team encode business knowledge and flows into code and leverage a human to make judgement calls when necessary. The outcome is a program that can either be used by skilled workers to multiply their output or allow unskilled workers to perform tasks that would have formerly required a skilled worker to accomplish.

    There are already (arguably) optimized flows and design patterns for application UX. Companies have already spent years trying to build and optimize this "human programming". Dev teams have developed many DSLs to make it easier to encode business logic into their applications more quickly.

    I am not saying line of business applications are good or near some optimal final form, but to call "human programming" untapped is taking a very narrow view of the definition.

  • susrev 12 days ago
    Regarding the introduction to this essay..

    Isn't some of the magic of being an agent in this world taken away when you are following a set of instructions to a T?

    Unable to make decisions for yourself without consulting your "virtual assistant" about something as trivial as if you can use y milk in place of x milk seems like a sad reality to me

  • textread 12 days ago

      Educators, generals, dieticians, 
      psychologists, and parents program. Armies, 
      students, and some societies are programmed.
    by Alan J Perlis, the first Turing Award recipient.
  • copymoro 12 days ago
    untapped? ahahahhaah

    it's not untapped. it's just slightly more effective if I don't tell you I'm trying to program you.

    in any case, in terms of "ultimate principles" all meaningful information is in the end an expression of some form of control;

    more precisely, we can only observe (as a 3rd "objective" party) the results of meaningful exchanges between interacting entities by noticing (measuring) changing behaviors whenever "meaning" gets transferred from one to another entity; i.e. I'm pointing out that (similarly to electricity/magnetism) we can never observe "meaning" directly, but can measure its effects on beings interacting with the "fields of meaning" ahahhaha.

  • orgelve 12 days ago