Ash at CIID

Ashwin Rajan's blog while at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design.

People as instruction processors – extended implications

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An exercise I found deeply interesting that we did some weeks back at CIID was called ‘People as instruction processors’. Dennis and Patrick, gestalten at the unique ‘the-product‘, gave us this brief:

“Write down three instructions-sets. These instructions will then be dictated to three other participants. The other participants will process the instruction by drawing on a piece of paper with a red, green or blue marker. The exercise aims at introducing the participants to programming as an everyday exercise, a translation from intention into language into action. The result will be a set of very analog procedural drawings.”

A first-cut instruction I came up with ran something like this:
‘Start in the middle of the page. Mark the point.
Draw a circle with any one point of its circumference lying on the marked point.
Draw a square touching the circle …’ and so on

As you can guess, no sooner than you write out the first set of instructions do you realize that you will need to be much more precise in further iterations. What exactly is the ‘middle’ of the page? Does that refer to the center point on the page as plotted from all four corners? Or, in the second and seemingly more explicit statement – what should the size of the circle be? Each detail provided can set the context and nudge the ‘instruction processor’ to execute results closer to the original intention. When the same instruction set is executed by multiple people, the results can be very similar to, or more often, radically different from one another, depending on the instructions given, and its understanding and execution by the subject.

Some of the results that came out of the exercise looked like this:

People as Instruction Processors - Results 01

People as Instruction Processors - Results 01

People as Instruction Processors - Results 02

People as Instruction Processors - Results 02

I thought this was a very powerful exercise because it communicated the fundamental challenges of providing instructions to processors – whether human or machine – in a manner that achieves intended outcomes, while also underlining the importance of ‘syntax’ or grammar, specificity and detail-orientation, interpretation and translation. The exercise also gave me a fascinating glimpse of how instructions and their interpretation can facilitate (or stifle) emergent phenomena.

Extended implications: I can think of at least two other domains where interaction designers can benefit highly from exploring how people behave as instruction processors: user research, and robotics.

To elucidate the first, here are six examples of contexts from a user research perspective where I can see value in learning how people process instructions:
1. Road signals that control traffic and commuters
2. Call centers: where operators perform (and are evaluated) based on a wide variety of parameters which are essentially instructional in nature, commencing with basic training.
3. e-learning: there is a reason the work of creating e-learning content is called ‘instructional design’.
4. Car Rally: Driving based on navigation instructions
5.  Mass co-ordinated, precision, and time-sensitive operations such as the emergency evacuation of a building by a team of firefighters, or a combat situation – with an extended analogy into virtual worlds of MMORPGs and team gaming; any number of examples can be given here.
6. The patient as an instruction processor who is required to follow the doctor’s prescription of the medication-diet-exercise-lifestyle mix as precisely as possible.

My second connection to this exercise is from a robotics perspective. I will keep it short by pointing you to this video by Rodney Brooks. He pivots a significant bit of his presentation on human-robot interaction, so watch out for that. Half way through his talk, the professor demonstrates how he and his team build artificial intelligence to mimic human instructional processing capabilities by calling a member of audience to the stage. Brooks’ AGI (artificial general intelligence) stance that ‘humans are essentially machines‘ makes for compelling reading. His own take on the singularity contention is neatly summed up in his statement “the singularity will be a period, not an event.”

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