How Thinking Like a Computer Will Optimise Your Life


At the dawn of the age of automation, it’s critical that all of us, no matter what industry, position, or socio-economic class we’re in, consider how our lives are going to change over the coming decades.

I’m not just talking about our work – although 40% of us will need new jobs if the predictions of futurologists prove true – but every aspect of our lives.

There are plenty of ways to do that, from reskilling to consulting experts, but perhaps the most interesting means of optimising our life was recently proposed by Tom Griffiths at TEDxSydney: think like a computer.

The suggestion isn’t all that surprising considering Griffiths’ experience as a computational cognitive scientist, but what is surprising is his argument that following the decision-making processes of a computer is actually more akin to the way people are designed to act when making hard choices than the way we tend to act.

Confusing? Griffiths uses the universal example of deciding which restaurant we want to eat at.

We pull a series of options from our memory, and combine them with the names of places we might see online or while going about our day. From the resulting list, we will select one option.

What follows is a computational process that Griffiths calls the “explore-exploit trade-off”. To make our selection, we will either explore – by making the decision to try something new – or exploit – use our previous experience to pick an option we already know is good.

The decision is unconscious, and if your house is anything like mine, you know how much time can be wasted going back and forth trying to decide what we ‘feel’ like.

By thinking more like a computer, we can take a more direct and less stressful approach. By posing a series of questions and using the answers to filter our original list down, making a choice suddenly becomes a whole lot easier.

Instead of asking what we feel like, we might ask how long it’s been since we last went to certain restaurants. Does the fact that we are more inclined towards one mean it’s worth dining in again, or does that give us the drive to try something new?

As context changes, so do the questions. If we travelling overseas, how many meals are we going to have time for? If the answer is only a few, then we might be inclined to hit our favourite spots up knowing we won’t be likely to return soon. If we’re in town a week or more, we will want to explore more in case we find something new that we like. Chances are that we won’t every time, but even computers occasionally hedge their bets.

This mentality can be applied simply to all aspects of our lives, and so it should. When making important decisions, we are prone to either become emotional, and forget that a few simple questions might help us see more clearly, or we become cautious, and rely on tradition to make decisions for us.

Neither option is particularly efficient, and as Griffiths says, “you can’t control outcomes, just processes”.

At a time where efficiency is proving the cornerstone for successful innovation, we can’t rely on emotion or tradition to help us make the bold steps forward that are necessary to our future success and happiness.

Watch Griffiths’ video above to discover two other forms of computational decision making that could improve your life, or check out his book Algorithms to Live By for more examples.

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