Reinforcing, not Replacing, What People Do Best
Tampa's abandoned exercise in public-space face recognition suggests that IT should complement human talents in complex tasks.During my five years with Exxon, I was often in the position of seeking bids from companies that built unusual equipment at hideous expense. I sometimes found it useful to perform the reality check of asking myself, "What would it cost to do this with an army of people instead of buying this big piece of gear?" When the answer made the "human wave" look more cost-effective, I knew that it might be time to see if something was being over-designed--or if technology was being pushed beyond its current limitations. As IT takes on new challenges in recognizing faces, understanding spoken words and even predicting peoples behavior, perhaps its useful to ask this question more often about proposed IT projects as well--and to look for the ideal synthesis between what people do better than machines and what machines (whether built from hardware or software) can do to enhance human performance of complex tasks instead of trying to replace people entirely.
For example, I saw last week that the city of Tampa has decided to abandon its exercise in using face-recognition technology to scan for wanted criminals in public places. When this project first got under way, I took part in a TV debate concerning the implications for personal privacy: At the risk of having angry e-mail messages outnumber even SoBig worms in my inbox, I welcome the idea that people might behave better in public if they thought that someone might be noticing, so I dont see a privacy problem at all. (As I said at the time, Im much more worried about the profile of my personal behavior that someone could easily assemble from my credit-card records than I am about the chance that someone will scan hours of videotape, from dozens of different cameras, to figure out where Ive been and what Ive been doing.)