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Why humans are better than computers



Photo of Gavin Williamson by the BBC



GAVIN WILLIAMSON SAYS he is “incredibly sorry for the distress” caused to pupils after having to make a U-turn in how A-levels and GCSEs are graded.

The tail-between-his-legs education secretary is probably also feeling a bit sorry for himself – though he'd be wise not to say as much at this stage – for thinking an algorithm was better at making assessments than teachers.

Algorithms, it seems, don’t know it all.

Let’s remind ourselves what an algorithm actually is.

It’s a set of instructions designed to solve a specific task. In the above case, it failed.

Algorithms look like simpletons compared to humans

In fact, when you write it down, an algorithm looks like an absolute simpleton compared to a human.

Despite their naivety, algorithms are sometimes given god-like status. Their reputations have soared in line with the meteoric rise of digital technologies during the last couple of decades in particular.

According to some, algorithms are the cleverest things on the planet.

But algorithms are written by humans. Surely the humans who write algorithms must be more intelligent than the algorithms themselves. And what about the people who teach people to write algorithms? They must have something to offer as well.

Teachers can teach computers a thing or two

Well, the government’s U-turn suggests such humans, in this case the people who teach others how to write algorithms, among much else, are better at assessing people. Who’d have thunk it? Teachers know their pupils better than algorithms do.

Ask Siri or Alexa any human (ambiguous, un-rigid, emotive) question, like what is their opinion about something, and their sterile, monotonic responses will consist of what they ‘found’ online. They will have found that information from the keywords they picked up from your question.

What does the word ‘it’ mean?

They have no idea what pronouns are. So, if you asked something like the following:

‘My suitcase measures 76 by 48 by 20 centimetres, will Ryanair accept it on flight XXXX?’

Siri and Alexa will have no idea what the word ‘it’ means. That simple pronoun that is standing in for the word ‘suitcase’ completely flummoxes the computers we all rushed out to buy.

Algorithms do of course have their place. They are quicker at calculating than humans, so you could argue they are better with numbers.

Indeed, the word ‘algorithm’ is related to the Greek word for number, ‘arithmos’.

Some companies now use computers to write news

But, while they’re quick, they’re not better at everything, especially when it comes to the emotions that connect us as humans.

Yet some companies have begun using computers to write at least basic news stories.

Which begs the question, would you rather a computer generated your communications, the words you want to share? Or is it better to use a human copywriter to create the words that make sense to other humans?

Remember, even computers with human-like names like Alexa (so close to the word ‘alexia’, which means the inability to read or recognise words) don’t know what ‘it’ means.

If you’ve got this far, you've enjoyed the writing of a human. I hope you've found it more engaging than the formulae generated by computers.

Get in touch if you want me to help you write the messages other humans relate to.


Thanks for reading.


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