Computing Power leading to a decline in thought power?

I recently attended an Industry workshop for High Performance Computing at Purdue University. This was industry’s chance to give feedback to the university types on what we need, what we don’t and what we can’t use, no matter how cool. It was a chance for us to get a peek into some of the up and coming research and development in HPC, so we can mull over the possibilities in the next couple of years. It was also a chance for us to network and chat with each other. I had a chance to talk to people supporting HPC activities at about a half dozen major companies and the consensus was immediately clear.

People are relying on the brute computing power of today’s computers, rather than thinking carefully. We are apparently not the only ones to notice. Yesterday, Tim Walker posted a thoughtful piece on the usefulness of thinking as well. Don’t misunderstand- I am not a luddite. There is no doubt that today’s hardest questions require incredible computing power to answer. The power of the computer on my desktop and in my lap right now mean that I can process music and video in ways not possible with paper and pencil. But to think that because you have seemingly endless computing power at your fingers tips you do not have to take time to think before typing is not only wrong, it is wasteful.

Let me give you an example. This is a completely made up example based off of real life stories. The names, products, companies are all changed.. but the thinking ( or lack thereof) remains the same. The impact to the bottom line of the companies has been experienced more than once.

John Smith works for WingsRUs -an up and coming wing company. They are a aiming at becoming the leading supplier of wings to the global wing market, so they want a brand new design that is more efficient, more economical to make and helps the craft it is attached to use less fuel. All great goals. WingsRUs is technologically savvy and uses the latest modeling and simulation methods to test all of their designs before building prototypes. They have a large supercomputer cluster they use to run simulations for fast turn around of ideas. These are all great practices. John has the germ of an idea for a wing that will revolutionize flight. He is sure it will be the next breakthrough product. But there are 3 variables that vary by 4 cm each which could impact his design and he is not quite sure which combinations will give the best results. John can easily submit groups or batches of simulations to the supercomputer cluster at his company, so he decides to parametrize those variables, varying each by a millimeter at a time and running the simulation for each possible combination to find the best solution. Although each simulation runs in 4 hours, this results in thousands of simulations and the analysis of each- adding weeks to the overall design cycle and consuming large amounts of the company computing resources. John consumes so many cycles, that other engineers have trouble getting their jobs through the queue and their managers put together a project with real ROI to expand the cluster and add more computing power to the company resrouces. It has computable ROI because they are in a situation where their engineers ability to work is impacted and with the additional compute power, they can achieve more. However, the same end result could have been achieved without any cash outlay at all, if our friendly engineer John had taken the time to think carefully, done a reasonable design of experiment and run fewer simulations in the first place.

The insanity of this is that every single corporate IT person I have talked to in the last year has at least one of these stories. Sometimes many. Sometimes it is caught before new compute power is purchased, but not always.

You can make the same arguments for something like storage. Yes, storage is fairly cheap right now.. But just because it is cheap, should you fill it up with junk emails and multiple versions of 5 year old files that you never would have kept back when storage was expensive? Wouldn’t it make more sense to take time to think for a moment, make reasonable choices and save the money on extra storage?

There are concerns other than costs savings involved as well. An unused brain does not reinforce neural connections and soon becomes “flabby” like an unused muscle. The end result is not just a loss of money for companies, but a loss of the national brain trust and the ability to think an innovate.

I love my computer- sometimes in ways that are probably not healthy. Some people would say I am addicted to the connectivity it provides for me. But I refuse to go one step further and let it think for me. What about you?