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Jocelyn Paine

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Finding the Best Metaphors will be the Work of a Generation

July 27, 2008

I just want to introduce you to two paragraphs that I read in Hans Moravec's 1988 book Mind Children: the Future of Robot and Human Intelligence. They apply to any programmer who needs to make their data structures easier to understand, for example in diagnostics. But more fundamentally, I believe they're vital to making mathematics easier to understand.

As I suggested in Chapter 1, the large, highly evolved sensory and motor portions of the brain seem to be the hidden powerhouse behind human thought. By virtue of the great efficiency of these billion-year-old structures, they may embody one million times the effective computational power of the conscious part of our minds. While novice performance can be achieved using conscious thought alone, master-level expertise draws on the enormous hidden resources of these old and specialized areas. Sometimes some of that power can be harnessed by finding and developing a useful mapping between the problem and a sensory intuition.

Although some individuals, through lucky combinations of inheritance and opportunity have developed expert intuitions in certain fields, most of us are amateurs at most things. What we need to improve our performance is explicit external metaphors that can tap our instinctive skills in a direct and repeatable way. Graphs, rules of thumb, physical models illustrating relationships, and other devices are widely and effectively used to enhance comprehension and retention. More recently, interactive pictorial computer interfaces such as those used in the Macintosh have greatly accelerated learning in novices and eased machine use for the experienced. The full sensory involvement possible with magic glasses may enable us to go much further in this direction. Finding the best metaphors will be the work of a generation: for now, we can amuse ourselves by guessing.

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