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← How to make inefficiency work for us

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Showing Revision 9 created 12/12/2019 by Erin Gregory.

  1. Who doesn't love efficiency?
  2. I do.
  3. Efficiency means more for less.
  4. More miles per gallon,
    more light per watt,
  5. more words per minute.
  6. More for less is the next best thing
  7. to something for nothing.
  8. Algorithms, big data, the cloud
    are giving us more for less.
  9. Are we heading toward
    a friction-free utopia
  10. or toward a nightmare of surveillance?
  11. I don't know.

  12. My interest is in the present.
  13. And I'd like to show you
  14. how the past can help us
    understand the present.
  15. There's nothing that summarizes

  16. both the promise
    and the danger of efficiency
  17. like the humble potato.
  18. The potato originated in the Andes
  19. and it spread to Europe
    from the ancient Inca.
  20. The potato is a masterpiece
    of balanced nutrition.
  21. And it had some very powerful friends.
  22. King Frederick the Great of Prussia
  23. was the first enthusiast.
  24. He believed that the potato could help
  25. increase the population
    of healthy Prussians.
  26. And the more healthy Prussians,
  27. the more healthy Prussian soldiers.
  28. And some of those
    healthy Prussian soldiers
  29. captured a French military
    pharmacist named Parmentier.
  30. Parmentier, at first, was appalled
  31. by the morning, noon and night diet
  32. fed to POWs of potatoes,
  33. but he came to enjoy it.
  34. He thought they were making
    him a healthier person.
  35. And so, when he was released,
  36. he took it on himself
    to spread the potato to France.
  37. And he had some powerful friends.
  38. Benjamin Franklin
    advised him to hold a banquet,
  39. at which every dish included potatoes.
  40. And Franklin was a guest of honor.
  41. Even the king and queen of France
  42. were persuaded to wear potatoes,
  43. potato flowers, pardon me.
  44. (Laughter)

  45. The king wore a potato
    flower in his lapel,

  46. and the queen wore
    a potato flower in her hair.
  47. That was a truly great
    public relations idea.
  48. But there was a catch.

  49. The potato was too efficient
    for Europe's good.
  50. In Ireland, it seemed a miracle.
  51. Potatoes flourished, the population grew.
  52. But there was a hidden risk.
  53. Ireland's potatoes
    were genetically identical.
  54. They were a very efficient breed,
    called the Lumper.
  55. And the problem with the Lumper
  56. was that a blight from South America
  57. that affected one potato
  58. would affect them all.
  59. Britain's exploitation
    and callousness played a role,
  60. but it was because of this monoculture
  61. that a million people died
  62. and another two million
    were forced to emigrate.
  63. A plant that was supposed to end famine
  64. created one of the most tragic ones.
  65. The problems of efficiency today

  66. are less drastic but more chronic.
  67. They can also prolong the evils
  68. that they were intended to solve.
  69. Take the electronic medical records.
  70. It seemed to be the answer
    to the problem of doctors' handwriting,
  71. and it had the benefit
  72. of providing much better data
    for treatments.
  73. In practice, instead, it has meant
  74. much more electronic paperwork
  75. and physicians are now complaining
    that they have less,
  76. rather than more time
    to see patients individually.
  77. The obsession with efficiency
    can actually make us less efficient.
  78. Efficiency also bites back
    with false positives.

  79. Hospitals have hundreds
    of devices registering alarms.
  80. Too often, they're crying wolf.
  81. It takes time to rule those out.
  82. And that time results in fatigue,
    stress and, once more,
  83. the neglect of the problems
    of real patients.
  84. There are also false positives
    in pattern recognition.
  85. A school bus, viewed from the wrong angle,
  86. can resemble a punching bag.
  87. So precious time is required
  88. to eliminate misidentification.
  89. False negatives are a problem, too.
  90. Algorithms can learn a lot -- fast.
  91. But they can tell us only about the past.
  92. So many future classics
    get bad reviews, like "Moby Dick,"
  93. or are turned down
    by multiple publishers,
  94. like the "Harry Potter" series.
  95. It can be wasteful
    to try to avoid all waste.
  96. Efficiency is also a trap
    when the opposition copies it.

  97. Take the late 19th-century
  98. French 75-millimeter artillery piece.
  99. It was a masterpiece of lethal design.
  100. This piece could fire a shell
    every four seconds.
  101. But that wasn't so unusual.
  102. What was really brilliant
    was that because of the recoil mechanism,
  103. it could return to the exact same position
  104. without having to be reaimed.
  105. So the effective rate of firing
    was drastically increased.
  106. Now, this seemed to be a way for France
  107. to defeat Germany
    the next time they fought.
  108. But, predictably, the Germans were working
  109. on something very similar.
  110. So when the First World War broke out,
  111. the result was the trench warfare
  112. that lasted longer
    than anybody had expected.
  113. A technology that was designed
    to shorten the war, prolonged it.
  114. The biggest cost of all
    may be missed opportunities.

  115. The platform economy
    connecting buyers and sellers
  116. can be a great investment,
  117. and we have seen that
    in the last few weeks.
  118. Companies that are still losing
    hundreds of millions of dollars
  119. may be creating billionaires
    with initial public offerings.
  120. But the really difficult inventions

  121. are the physical and chemical ones.
  122. They mean bigger risks.
  123. They may be losing out,
    because hardware is hard.
  124. It's much harder to scale up
    a physical or chemical invention
  125. than it is a software-based invention.
  126. Think of batteries.
  127. Lithium-ion batteries
    in portable devices and electric cars
  128. are based on a 30-year-old principle.
  129. How many smartphone batteries today
  130. will last a full day on a single charge?
  131. Yes, hardware is hard.
  132. It took over 20 years for the patent
  133. on the principle of dry photocopying,
  134. by Chester Carlson in 1938,
  135. to result in the Xerox 914 copier
    introduced in 1959.
  136. The small, brave company,
    Haloid in Rochester, NY
  137. had to go through what most corporations
    would never have tolerated.
  138. There was one failure after another,
  139. and one of the special problems was fire.
  140. In fact, when the 914
    was finally released,
  141. it still had a device
    that was called a scorch eliminator
  142. but actually it was
    a small fire extinguisher built in.
  143. My answer to all these questions is:
    inspired inefficiency.

  144. Data and measurement are essential,
    but they're not enough.
  145. Let's leave room for human intuition
    and human skills.
  146. There are seven facets
    of inspired inefficiency.
  147. First, take the scenic route,
    say yes to serendipity.
  148. Wrong turns can be productive.
  149. Once, when I was exploring
    the east bank of the Mississippi,
  150. I took the wrong turn.
  151. I was approaching a toll bridge
    crossing the great river,
  152. and the toll collector
    said I could not turn back.
  153. So I paid my 50 cents --
    that's all it was at the time --
  154. and I was in Muscatine, Iowa.
  155. I had barely heard of Muscatine,
  156. but it proved to be a fascinating place.
  157. Muscatine had some
    of the world's richest mussel beds.
  158. A century ago,
    a third of the world's buttons
  159. were produced in Muscatine,
  160. 1.5 billion a year.
  161. The last plants have closed now,
  162. but there is still a museum
    of the pearl button industry
  163. that's one of the most
    unusual in the world.
  164. But buttons were only the beginning.
  165. This is the house in Muscatine
  166. where China's future
    president stayed in 1986,
  167. as a member of an agricultural delegation.
  168. It is now the Sino-US Friendship House,
  169. and it's a pilgrimage site
    for Chinese tourists.
  170. How could I have foreseen that?
  171. (Laughter)

  172. Second, get up from the couch.

  173. Sometimes it can be more efficient
  174. to do things the hard way.
  175. Consider the internet of things.
  176. It's wonderful
    to be able to control lights,
  177. set the thermostat, even vacuum the room
  178. without leaving one's seat.
  179. But medical research has shown
  180. that actually fidgeting,
    getting up, walking around
  181. is one of the best things
    you can do for your heart.
  182. It's good for the heart and the waistline.
  183. Third, monetize your mistakes.

  184. Great forms can be created
  185. by imaginative development of accidents.
  186. Tad Leski, an architect
    of the Metropolitan Opera
  187. at Lincoln Center,
  188. was working on a sketch
    and some white ink fell on the drawing.
  189. Other people might just
    have thrown it away,
  190. but Leski was inspired
    to produce a starburst chandelier
  191. that was probably the most notable
    of its kind of the 20th century.
  192. Fourth, sometimes try the hard way.

  193. It can be more efficient
    to be less fluent.
  194. Psychologists call this
    desirable difficulty.
  195. Taking detailed notes with a keyboard
  196. would seem to be the best way
    to grasp what a lecturer is saying,
  197. to be able to review it verbatim.
  198. However, studies have shown
    that when we have to abbreviate,
  199. when we have to summarize
    what a speaker is saying,
  200. when we're taking notes
    with a pen or a pencil on paper,
  201. we're processing that information.
  202. We're making that our own,
  203. and we are learning much more actively
  204. than when we were just transcribing
  205. what was being said.
  206. Fifth, get security through diversity.

  207. Monoculture can be deadly.
  208. Remember the potato?
  209. It was efficient until it wasn't.
  210. Diversity applies to organizations, too.
  211. Software can tell what has made people
    in an organization succeed in the past.
  212. And it's useful, sometimes,
    in screening employees.
  213. But remember, the environment
    is constantly changing,
  214. and software, screening software,
    has no way to tell,
  215. and we have no way to tell,
  216. who is going to be useful in the future.
  217. So, we need to supplement
    whatever the algorithm tells us
  218. by an intuition and by looking for people
  219. with various backgrounds
    and various outlooks.
  220. Sixth, achieve safety
    through redundancy and human skills.

  221. Why did two 737 Max aircraft crash?
  222. We still don't know the full story,
  223. but we know how to
    prevent future tragedies.
  224. We need multiple independent systems.
  225. If one fails, then the others
    can override it.
  226. We also need skilled operators
    to come to the rescue
  227. and that means constant training.
  228. Seventh, be rationally extravagant.

  229. Thomas Edison was a pioneer
    of the film industry,
  230. as well as of camera technology.
  231. Nobody has done more
    for efficiency than Thomas Edison.
  232. But his cost cutting broke down.
  233. His manager hired
    a so-called efficiency engineer,
  234. who advised him to save money
  235. by using more of the film stock
    that he'd shot,
  236. having fewer retakes.
  237. Well, Edison was a genius,
  238. but he didn't understand
    the new rules of feature films
  239. and the fact that failure
    was becoming the price of success.
  240. On the other hand, some great directors,
    like Erich Von Stroheim,
  241. were the opposite.
  242. They were superb dramatists,
  243. and Stroheim was also a memorable actor.
  244. But they couldn't live
    within their budgets.
  245. So that was not sustainable.
  246. It was Irving Thalberg,
    a former secretary with intuitive genius,
  247. who achieved rational extravagance.
  248. First at Universal, and then at MGM,
  249. becoming the ideal
    of the Hollywood producer.
  250. Summing up, to be truly efficient,

  251. we need optimal inefficiency.
  252. The shortest path may be a curve
  253. rather than a straight line.
  254. Charles Darwin understood that.
  255. When he encountered a tough problem,
  256. he made a circuit of a trail,
  257. the sandwalk that he'd built
    behind his house.
  258. A productive path
    can be physical, like Darwin's,
  259. or a virtual one, or an unforeseen detour
  260. from a path we had laid out.
  261. Too much efficiency can weaken itself.
  262. But a bit of inspired inefficiency
    can strengthen it.
  263. Sometimes, the best way to move forward
  264. is to follow a circle.
  265. Thank you.

  266. (Applause)