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.

Mercedes-Benz gives its robots a rest, and brings back the humans


A revolution is happening at the Sindelfingen, the largest factory of Mercedes-Benz in Germany. The luxury carmaker has decided to extend vacation time to its robots while it brings back the humans to handle, most especially, customization: carbon-fiber trim, heated and cooled cup-holders and four types of caps for the tire valves, and a plethora of other options that the machines cannot keep with. “Robots can’t deal with the degree of individualization and the many variants that we have today,” said Markus Schaefer, the German automaker’s head of production. The unquantifiable little thing that sets men and robots apart is what we call “conscience.” It does not mean it may not happen at some point. But in the meantime, humans can still carry on with what they do best: making things or creating, which is the same.