Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Limits of Imagination

The Wall St. Journal had an interesting op-ed today, "Send in the Tech Reinforcements", calling for an overhaul of the process by which the Defense Department arranges for custom-built software. The department's IT history has no shortage of cost overruns, big delays, and even outright failures. This shouldn't be a surprise. The Pentagon is a big bureaucratic enterprise that nonetheless sets out to design and obtain bold breakthrough products. It's a recipe for massive headaches. It's impressive that they get anything to work! The authors of the op-ed say the Pentagon's software methodology is outmoded, which I don't doubt. Then they say this:
The modern software development cycle, by contrast, moves in weeks, days and even hours—because software is a malleable digital item whose only limits are the human imagination.
There's some profound truth there... but.

First, even an industry-leader like Amazon, which the authors put forward as a model, can only get so many lines of code written in a week.

Second, putting the issue of days and weeks aside, we need to be careful about the idea that software is "limited only by imagination".

A lot depends on what you mean by imagination. We can imagine a computer program that thinks just like a human. But we are in no position to write such a program.

We can imagine the program's user interface - perhaps we would like it to converse with us helpfully about our strategy in Afghanistan - but we can't really imagine how such a machine would work at a producible level of detail.

Implementing imagination, however inspired,
hangs on the question of whether
someone can cobble together
the actual pieces required.

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