Thursday, August 28, 2008

Professional bias

The expression "professional bias" designates a mental conditioning brought about by the particularities of one's job. A contrived example is that of a race-car driver, say, who overtakes dangerously when he's out driving in the family automobile with his wife and kids.

Long ago, I started to suspect the existence of professional bias due to computer programming. I recall seeing a case of this, for the first time, in the conversational behavior of a colleague in Paris. He would periodically abandon the current topic about which he had been speaking in order to explore such-and-such an aspect in detail. Then, at the end of his detailed exploration, he would return to what he had been saying earlier on. On such occasions, he would inform his listeners that he was implementing the familiar programming concept referred to as a stack. He would do this by pointing out explicitly the moment at which he was about to "push down" (hide momentarily) the initial topic, and then, later on, the moment at which the hidden topic was about to "pop up" (reappear) once again. Insofar as a stack can be composed of multiple levels, which might be exploited in an irregular order, it can quickly become tedious for a listener confronted with a conversationalist with this kind of professional bias.

I soon realized that I myself was afflicted with this professional bias, which happens to infuriate my ex-wife and our two children. I have an even worse affliction due to the same causes. Faced with an ordinary real-world challenge such as building a kitchen cupboard, say, I tend to consider that the task has been satisfactorily completed as soon as I've convinced myself that I know how to perform the task in question, rather than when the intended outcome of the project has indeed become a reality. I conceal this strange outlook, unwittingly, behind a verb that also infuriates my ex-wife and children. I speak of "mastering a situation", which is a synonym for knowing how to do something. Inversely, whenever I'm reprimanded because I haven't actually done something I should have done, I get upset by the suggestion that I might not "master the situation" in an ideal fashion. In my mind, the fact that the job has not in fact been performed yet is of lesser importance than my conviction that I know how to do it. These reactions are of course pure symptoms of professional bias due to excessive immersion in computer programming activities, where the only thing that counts is the existence of adequate algorithms for performing tasks, no matter whether or not the algorithms in question have actually been applied to solve specific problems, or carry out particular computational jobs. I would be a hopeless boss of a small company (or a big one, for that matter). When the employees complained that they hadn't received their pay checks, I would say: "What's all the fuss about? Everything's in perfect order, and our computer can print out the payroll rapidly at the flick of a switch! "

Sometimes I felt a little ill at ease to realize that my mind might be warped by my work. I was reminded of a brief image in a film where you have a rear view of a sexton who kneels down piously on his right knee every time he passes in front of the altar. When the camera swings around to provide us with a front view of the dear man, we discover that he has worn a knee-level hole in the right leg of his trousers. I wondered whether excessive computer thinking might not have worn a hole in my mind.

Things have advanced rapidly since the time when I had such qualms. From one end to the other of a book such as How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker, which is already over ten years old, the author—a professor psychology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—exploits the so-called computational theory of the mind, according to which everything aspect of human thinking can and must be explained in terms of computing-programming paradigms and machine metaphors. When I wrote Machina Sapiens back in 1976, I thought at times that I might be a bit reckless in imagining that computers might get around, one day, to "thinking" in a more-or-less human-like fashion. Today, on the contrary, I realize that I didn't go nearly far enough in suggesting that, since Man is a kind of machine, it is quite feasible to imagine machines that will end up behaving much like human beings. We realize, though, that the task will be extremely difficult, and probably take a long time, not because there's anything of a non-mechanical nature in a human being, but because Evolution has had an immensely long time to put together the spectacular machine called Homo sapiens.

This man, named Douglas A Melton, is a US researcher in genetics, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, whose goal consists of creating cells that are missing or defective in certain patients, particularly those suffering from diabetes. Yesterday, the journal Nature revealed that Melton's group has made a great step towards modifying the function of adult cells. This operation is designated, by means of a pure computing metaphor, as reprogramming the function of the cells. The Washington Post described the breakthrough as follows:

Through a series of painstaking experiments involving mice, the Harvard biologists pinpointed three crucial molecular switches that, when flipped, completely convert a common cell in the pancreas into the more precious insulin-producing ones that diabetics need to survive.

Here, the notion of molecular "switches" being "flipped" sounds like electronic engineering. In fact, it is computer talk, reflecting the fact that the DNA in a cell can be considered as a purely digital storage device, like the memory of a computer.

Up until last year, researchers in medical genetics were obliged to work with authentic embryonic cells, and this disturbed religious folk who felt that scientists were acting unethically. Then there was the welcome discovery that adult cells of any kind could be transformed into an embryonic state, enabling them to be coaxed into developing into any kind of desired cell for experimental work. The outcome of the Harvard work is that it will be possible to avoid the necessity of returning to the embryonic level, since adult cells will be reprogrammed in such a way that they actually become cells of a related kind.

For the moment, Melton and his fellow researchers have been working only with the cells of mice. So, a lot of work still remains to be done before the successful creation of a revolutionary branch of medicine that might be referred to as genetic surgery. In that future domain, based upon the notion of reprogramming human cell functions, it's likely that the technicians will talk among themselves, to a large extent, in the jargon of computer programmers.

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