To make machines more human, learn humanities

In his 1998 book “The inmates are running the asylum”, software consultant Alan Cooper points out that computers are often hard to use because they are designed to be used by the engineers who made them. He then introduces the concept of design “personas” as a tool for engineers to keep actual users in mind when creating their software. Personas are well known within the software industry, yet many devices and programs remain hard to use. It seems that engineers themselves, let alone computers, are not that easy to humanize.

Another software engineer, J. Bradford Hipps, argues that the reason for this is the narrow scope of engineering education. Mr. Hipps is unusual in that he became a software developer after majoring in humanities. In his column he gives a couple compelling examples of how a musician and a philosopher provided creative solutions to difficult software programming problems. He criticizes the technology industry for encouraging the opposite approach, and recommends learning to code software as a valuable technical skill after completing an education in humanities.

Given the explosive growth of the technology industry, there is no doubt that learning to code can land you a job whatever your background. Technical education companies such as Galvanize offer six-month programming courses under the promise of well-paid technology jobs. Or you can learn to code by following a programming language guide; Verb recommends the excellent “Eloquent JavaScript” by Marijn Haverbeke. Learning to code from a manual is not a new idea: it is how software engineers started, back when they were human.

The death of money, poor spelling and the failed $1 billion cyber-heist


We predicted it. Last Thursday we mentioned in passing that mobile resources were changing the way we bank. As we no longer need to go to a bank to withdraw or deposit money, the day would come, we conjectured, when armed robberies would become a thing of the past. We ended by warning about the possibility of a rise in cyber-crimes, which spared all of us the violence involved in the traditional heists. Sure enough, last weekend the world found out about the transfer of $80 million from the Central Bank of Bangladesh into bank accounts in the Philippines. Cyber-thieves penetrated the system of the Bangladeshi institution and instructed it with simple protocols to deliver those large sums. One spelling error, however, stopped a $1 billion transfer. The IT genius surely found school boring and did not do his homework, for someone of his capacity should know how to spell “foundation” (one of the fictitious payees of the stolen funds). Instead, this hacker wrote “fandation,” triggering a security alert at an intermediary institution—Deutsche Bank—which double-checked with the Bangladeshi central bank, bringing the whole scheme to light. So, this is the new frontier in crime. But surely classical education has its benefits. It enlightens, and it may help to get rich too, if only honestly and more slowly than making off with stolen quick money. Speaking of which: is money as we know it on its death throes? In a credit-based society, money has become an electronic signal backed up by real currency actually deposited at a branch. Yet when we withdraw it from an automatic cash dispenser anywhere in the world, automatic systems are simply reporting information that, indeed, that money exists. Does not that sound a bit like the time when money was backed up by gold?

Our journey from birth to death: a British study

In March 1946, a group of British scientists recorded the birth of every baby in the country in one particular week with the goal of studying their lives as they unfolded. The study still runs and it has become, as it happens, a continuous insight, from cradle to grave. Throughout the years and the decades, these dedicated scientists, for the most part anonymous to the world, have put under the microscope these men’s and women’s birth, childhood, education, marriage and work, and now, that they are approaching the sunset of their lives, how they are coping with old age. Throughout commonalities—educational shortcomings, for instance, were shocking to discover, as well as health conditions such as obesity and cholesterol—one common pattern emerged: social class, or where we stand in terms of income and opportunities already at birth, has a major impact in determining the path our lives follow. It was startling to note that those born in 1958 had a better shot at social mobility than the 1970 class. The study has helped shape British government policies to remedy some of these inequalities.