Sunday, 23 June 2013

What is so hard about research?

Jody Passanisi and Shara Peters have recently posted a guest blog on the Scientific American entitled What is so hard about research? which looks at the problems of getting students to think imaginatively about research and the available research tools, and commenting that they tend to look for quick and easy options rather than stop and think about the problem. In reply I have posted the following comment.

Humans evolved in a world where they had incomplete knowledge and unpredictable things would happen. One needed an imaginative mind to survive. Computers were designed to handle well defined and predicable problems which (initially at least) concentrated on problems which humans were inherently bad at. It is clear that the human brain and the computer were designed to handle very different kinds of problem – and complement each other. To the vast majority of humans the computer is a black box which does predefined tasks with no questions asked about how it does it. And to be honest many of these tasks are extremely useful so the technology has been unbelievably successful.
At least some of the problems described in the article are because the human brain is flexible enough to adapt to working with computers, especially as the basics of computing has been taught in schools for virtually a generation. Many everyday computers systems – for instance word processors – provide vast numbers of predefined options. If you want to do something different you have to select the appropriate predefined option(s) rather than use your imagination – which you would have had to do in the days of pen and paper. The overall effect is that, at least in the presence of modern technology, we start to think like a computer - “Predefinition good – uncontrolled imagination bad”. As long as what you want to do is compatible with the electronic “Big Brother” you will find an almost unlimited number of exciting things to do with minimal effort. If you, or your students, start thinking imaginatively outside the box you will find it hard work.
These comments are based on direct experience of seeing changes over a period on nearly 50 years. About 45 years ago (when computers were still comparatively new) I started to work (as a computer scientist) on an alternative approach that could have lead to an “white box” information processor designed to work in a way that the users could understand and control. If people knew nothing about computers it was comparatively easy to explain how it worked. The difficulty was that the more someone knew about computers the more they tried to use the system as if it was a conventional computer, as they took it for granted that you needed to predefine tasks in advance! Now it is almost impossible to find anyone under retirement age who hasn't taken the computer way of thinking for granted.

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