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> Another Example

Another Example

A while ago, at a previous job, I helped write some software for a transportation company. I'm sure there's a name for the kind of software, but it's not coming to me, so I'll describe it instead. Basically, the software kept track of the operational state of the company and provided a set of interfaces through which the various employees could modify the state the customer service reps could enter orders, the dispatchers could keep track of where their trucks were, and so on.

The whole system, of people and computers and trucks, is an excellent example of a superorganism.

I hate to admit it, but I think that recent slogan of Microsoft's, about networked computers being (digital) nervous systems, was right on the mark. If anything, the statement is a bit weak. Sure, most computers are being used only as transducers, converting analog information into digital form, and so are comparable to telephone lines, network cables, and routers, but a few are doing interesting work, and are part of the brain.

In the case of the transportation company, some of the computers are acting as a memory, keeping track of past, present, and even a few anticipated future events. The memory is larger, faster, and more accurate than any human memory, and is faster and more searchable than the paper memories that were used in the past.

Other computers are acting as a well, as a part of the brain connected to the part that plans and anticipates. Imagine the human executives at their computers, running data-mining operations in order to look for trends. Amusingly, the corporate jargon is exactly right: the computers are acting as decision support.

Best of all, there's one computer that spends all its time thinking about logistics, trying to figure out where the various trucks should go, and in what order. I didn't actually work on that part of the system, but I assume the computer could come up with better plans than a human otherwise, why use it? In any case, what a neat thing to have as part of a brain! I'm not quite sure how to think about it, though. Maybe it's like the things people have in their brains that let them throw balls accurately there is a lot of prediction and calculation involved in that, too.

By the way, I mentioned, in Feedback, the idea that superorganisms can have interesting parts that aren't human. Well, now I have plenty of examples. Actually, if I'd thought about it, I already had plenty of examples. Even a sprinkler system isn't a trivial thing, it has all kinds of valves and timers and whatnot, a nice little autonomic system. Still, I like the logistics example better.

Now, returning to the transportation company, here are a couple of points to wonder about.

First, to what extent is the transportation company still controlled by humans? Certainly, humans are in charge of planning and troubleshooting, but in day-to-day operation, aren't the people involved largely acting as sensors and effectors, and not as brain cells?

Actually, that's an overstatement. The customer service reps and dispatchers and so on do in fact use a lot of judgement in their work, and so are acting as part of the brain. I still like the original question though.

Second, how intelligent is the transportant company, as an organism? It can certainly perform some very complicated tasks. Using computers, it can remember things and calculate logistics; and using people, it can, for example, move trucks over roads under all kinds of conditions. (That may sound simple enough, but if you think about it, driving is actually an enormously complex task.)

However, all those tasks are performed in much the same way as a human computes a ball trajectory unconsciously. There is no intelligence of a kind that could be communicated with. Sure, you can ask the organism to move freight for you, just as you can lead ants around by laying chemical trails, but you can't ask it about anything outside its domain about, say, disposal of nuclear waste.

Actually, it is a little disturbing to me how much trouble I had coming up with an example of something outside the organism's domain that I couldn't categorize as trivia of interest only to humans. Maybe the organism is smarter than I think, and the communication difficulty is just that there's no overlap of concerns.

What would you ask a superorganism, anyway? How's the weather? Rough day, huh? Doing anything over the weekend?


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@ October (2001)