New York's Aqueducts, Bret Victor, Fans, Mississippi
Programming is hard. But it’s the tedium that comes from an impoverished medium. Perhaps GPT will abstract most of the tedium away – as argued here by Matt Welsh:
Programming will be obsolete. I believe the conventional idea of “writing a program” is headed for extinction, and indeed, for all but very specialized applications, most software, as we know it, will be replaced by AI systems that are trained rather than programmed. In situations where one needs a “simple” program (after all, not everything should require a model of hundreds of billions of parameters running on a cluster of GPUs), those programs will, themselves, be generated by an AI rather than coded by hand.
Even if he’s right, we’ll still have this impoverished medium to live with.
I’ve been thinking about Bret Victor’s old talk, The Human Representation of Thought. He argues that we have all these other innate capabilities. They are sitting idle, like unused CPUs, while we’re forced to work in a single-threaded medium of the screen.
We work with intangible symbols to make incredibly elaborate affordances that scale globally. It sounds pretty impressive. We must all be pretty smart. But how do we compare to New York’s Water System?
It uses physics, it’s lasted a hundred years. How long do our programs last? And when they break, is it at bare metal, the pipes, and wires? Or is it a surface-level vulnerability that gets pushed to production and exploited? Or a UI oversight that prevents a submit button from working. There are so many ways to fail - and I think it has to do with this impoverished medium.
For example, take a quick at how a fan works.
Now imagine that as a state machine. And now add a login and 2FA. I’ll stop there so I don’t lose the thread. The point is the logic engine of this fan is a single riveted metal rectangle. The fan’s designers didn’t have to write up a state machine because the logic was embedded in the physical object. The physical object may have even helped them get to a solution more quickly (similar to Feynman’s insistence that, for him, that writing was thinking). Logic came out of the physical arrangement.
A final example of the sort of thinking we’ve lost: Mississippi River Basin Model