The paradox of efficiency | Edward Tenner

The paradox of efficiency | Edward Tenner

Who doesn’t love efficiency? I do. Efficiency means more for less. More miles per gallon,
more light per watt, more words per minute. More for less is the next best thing to something for nothing. Algorithms, big data, the cloud
are giving us more for less. Are we heading toward
a friction-free utopia or toward a nightmare of surveillance? I don’t know. My interest is in the present. And I’d like to show you how the past can help us
understand the present. There’s nothing that summarizes both the promise
and the danger of efficiency like the humble potato. The potato originated in the Andes and it spread to Europe
from the ancient Inca. The potato is a masterpiece
of balanced nutrition. And it had some very powerful friends. King Frederick the Great of Prussia was the first enthusiast. He believed that the potato could help increase the population
of healthy Prussians. And the more healthy Prussians, the more healthy Prussian soldiers. And some of those
healthy Prussian soldiers captured a French military
pharmacist named Parmentier. Parmentier, at first, was appalled by the morning, noon and night diet fed to POWs of potatoes, but he came to enjoy it. He thought they were making
him a healthier person. And so, when he was released, he took it on himself
to spread the potato to France. And he had some powerful friends. Benjamin Franklin
advised him to hold a banquet, at which every dish included potatoes. And Franklin was a guest of honor. Even the king and queen of France were persuaded to wear potatoes, potato flowers, pardon me. (Laughter) The king wore a potato
flower in his lapel, and the queen wore
a potato flower in her hair. That was a truly great
public relations idea. But there was a catch. The potato was too efficient
for Europe’s good. In Ireland, it seemed a miracle. Potatoes flourished, the population grew. But there was a hidden risk. Ireland’s potatoes
were genetically identical. They were a very efficient breed,
called the Lumper. And the problem with the Lumper was that a blight from South America that affected one potato would affect them all. Britain’s exploitation
and callousness played a role, but it was because of this monoculture that a million people died and another two million
were forced to emigrate. A plant that was supposed to end famine created one of the most tragic ones. The problems of efficiency today are less drastic but more chronic. They can also prolong the evils that they were intended to solve. Take the electronic medical records. It seemed to be the answer
to the problem of doctors’ handwriting, and it had the benefit of providing much better data
for treatments. In practice, instead, it has meant much more electronic paperwork and physicians are now complaining
that they have less, rather than more time
to see patients individually. The obsession with efficiency
can actually make us less efficient. Efficiency also bites back
with false positives. Hospitals have hundreds
of devices registering alarms. Too often, they’re crying wolf. It takes time to rule those out. And that time results in fatigue,
stress and, once more, the neglect of the problems
of real patients. There are also false positives
in pattern recognition. A school bus, viewed from the wrong angle, can resemble a punching bag. So precious time is required to eliminate misidentification. False negatives are a problem, too. Algorithms can learn a lot — fast. But they can tell us only about the past. So many future classics
get bad reviews, like “Moby Dick,” or are turned down
by multiple publishers, like the “Harry Potter” series. It can be wasteful
to try to avoid all waste. Efficiency is also a trap
when the opposition copies it. Take the late 19th-century French 75-millimeter artillery piece. It was a masterpiece of lethal design. This piece could fire a shell
every four seconds. But that wasn’t so unusual. What was really brilliant
was that because of the recoil mechanism, it could return to the exact same position without having to be reaimed. So the effective rate of firing
was drastically increased. Now, this seemed to be a way for France to defeat Germany
the next time they fought. But, predictably, the Germans were working on something very similar. So when the First World War broke out, the result was the trench warfare that lasted longer
than anybody had expected. A technology that was designed
to shorten the war, prolonged it. The biggest cost of all
may be missed opportunities. The platform economy
connecting buyers and sellers can be a great investment, and we have seen that
in the last few weeks. Companies that are still losing
hundreds of millions of dollars may be creating billionaires
with initial public offerings. But the really difficult inventions are the physical and chemical ones. They mean bigger risks. They may be losing out,
because hardware is hard. It’s much harder to scale up
a physical or chemical invention than it is a software-based invention. Think of batteries. Lithium-ion batteries
in portable devices and electric cars are based on a 30-year-old principle. How many smartphone batteries today will last a full day on a single charge? Yes, hardware is hard. It took over 20 years for the patent on the principle of dry photocopying, by Chester Carlson in 1938, to result in the Xerox 914 copier
introduced in 1959. The small, brave company,
Haloid in Rochester, NY had to go through what most corporations
would never have tolerated. There was one failure after another, and one of the special problems was fire. In fact, when the 914
was finally released, it still had a device
that was called a scorch eliminator but actually it was
a small fire extinguisher built in. My answer to all these questions is:
inspired inefficiency. Data and measurement are essential,
but they’re not enough. Let’s leave room for human intuition
and human skills. There are seven facets
of inspired inefficiency. First, take the scenic route,
say yes to serendipity. Wrong turns can be productive. Once, when I was exploring
the east bank of the Mississippi, I took the wrong turn. I was approaching a toll bridge
crossing the great river, and the toll collector
said I could not turn back. So I paid my 50 cents —
that’s all it was at the time — and I was in Muscatine, Iowa. I had barely heard of Muscatine, but it proved to be a fascinating place. Muscatine had some
of the world’s richest mussel beds. A century ago,
a third of the world’s buttons were produced in Muscatine, 1.5 billion a year. The last plants have closed now, but there is still a museum
of the pearl button industry that’s one of the most
unusual in the world. But buttons were only the beginning. This is the house in Muscatine where China’s future
president stayed in 1986, as a member of an agricultural delegation. It is now the Sino-US Friendship House, and it’s a pilgrimage site
for Chinese tourists. How could I have foreseen that? (Laughter) Second, get up from the couch. Sometimes it can be more efficient to do things the hard way. Consider the internet of things. It’s wonderful
to be able to control lights, set the thermostat, even vacuum the room without leaving one’s seat. But medical research has shown that actually fidgeting,
getting up, walking around is one of the best things
you can do for your heart. It’s good for the heart and the waistline. Third, monetize your mistakes. Great forms can be created by imaginative development of accidents. Tad Leski, an architect
of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, was working on a sketch
and some white ink fell on the drawing. Other people might just
have thrown it away, but Leski was inspired
to produce a starburst chandelier that was probably the most notable
of its kind of the 20th century. Fourth, sometimes try the hard way. It can be more efficient
to be less fluent. Psychologists call this
desirable difficulty. Taking detailed notes with a keyboard would seem to be the best way
to grasp what a lecturer is saying, to be able to review it verbatim. However, studies have shown
that when we have to abbreviate, when we have to summarize
what a speaker is saying, when we’re taking notes
with a pen or a pencil on paper, we’re processing that information. We’re making that our own, and we are learning much more actively than when we were just transcribing what was being said. Fifth, get security through diversity. Monoculture can be deadly. Remember the potato? It was efficient until it wasn’t. Diversity applies to organizations, too. Software can tell what has made people
in an organization succeed in the past. And it’s useful, sometimes,
in screening employees. But remember, the environment
is constantly changing, and software, screening software,
has no way to tell, and we have no way to tell, who is going to be useful in the future. So, we need to supplement
whatever the algorithm tells us by an intuition and by looking for people with various backgrounds
and various outlooks. Sixth, achieve safety
through redundancy and human skills. Why did two 737 Max aircraft crash? We still don’t know the full story, but we know how to
prevent future tragedies. We need multiple independent systems. If one fails, then the others
can override it. We also need skilled operators
to come to the rescue and that means constant training. Seventh, be rationally extravagant. Thomas Edison was a pioneer
of the film industry, as well as of camera technology. Nobody has done more
for efficiency than Thomas Edison. But his cost cutting broke down. His manager hired
a so-called efficiency engineer, who advised him to save money by using more of the film stock
that he’d shot, having fewer retakes. Well, Edison was a genius, but he didn’t understand
the new rules of feature films and the fact that failure
was becoming the price of success. On the other hand, some great directors,
like Erich Von Stroheim, were the opposite. They were superb dramatists, and Stroheim was also a memorable actor. But they couldn’t live
within their budgets. So that was not sustainable. It was Irving Thalberg,
a former secretary with intuitive genius, who achieved rational extravagance. First at Universal, and then at MGM, becoming the ideal
of the Hollywood producer. Summing up, to be truly efficient, we need optimal inefficiency. The shortest path may be a curve rather than a straight line. Charles Darwin understood that. When he encountered a tough problem, he made a circuit of a trail, the sandwalk that he’d built
behind his house. A productive path
can be physical, like Darwin’s, or a virtual one, or an unforeseen detour from a path we had laid out. Too much efficiency can weaken itself. But a bit of inspired inefficiency
can strengthen it. Sometimes, the best way to move forward is to follow a circle. Thank you. (Applause)

93 thoughts on “The paradox of efficiency | Edward Tenner

  1. Success is all about fine tuning our own original style following the process of identification and elimination of ineffective stuff and emphasizing the uniqueness in our originality.

  2. We forget that the last station is the same for everyone.
    At the end, it is a joyful being that makes it worth living.

  3. A nightmare of surveillance is an accurate description of the direction that the world and technology is going. The masses are blindly giving up their privacy and liberties in exchange for convenience.

  4. It's good to get Gr8 service but who are u trying 2 please. U cannot sustain such a high-quality service to ensure that u r liked by everyone.

  5. "Data and measurement are essential, but they are not enough. Let's leave room for human intuition and human skill."

  6. I often had avoided 100% efficiency by accepting the inefficiencies of experiments and failures, but now I know that what I have been doing could have made me more efficient in ways (and obviously less in others)

  7. The guy doesnt really get it, if you make one part in a chain efficient, giving more to the next chain, somewhere next in the chain a new bottleneck appears, or the chain path changes, taking routes unforeseen. So if making one part of a chain more efficient, but it doesnt make the whole part efficient, it's not a paradox, you just made the wrong part efficient, or u missed a part 😉 [edit] unless I dont get that this is a paradox 😛

  8. This is stupid and the examples are bad. Its like saying "you can walk 30 mins a day to work and youll be healthier. Thats more efficient!" Comparing 2 different aspects is stupid.

  9. The chance factor is beyond our control and the law of un intended consequences has proved that sometimes even after the best of our efforts the outcome turns out to be way too different than what anyone could have ever thought.

  10. The recent redesign of public transport in Helsinki is a prime example of efficiency gone wrong: All previous long lines were chopped into short ones that connect to one of a few main lines. This was supposed to make travelling faster, easier, and more cost-efficient. In reality, travel times increased, difficulty and discomfort increased, and costs went up. What on earth happened!?
    Short answer: Reality is messy and people want convenience.

    Long answer:
    Previously, people could take one bus/tram, which would drive a long, winding route through small roads and neighborhoods, taking its sweet time to get from one end to the other. It was deemed inefficient , because there were fewer passengers per line, and the vehicles were empty at parts of the route, due to overlap. With the new, efficient system, most routes became shorter, meaning you will usually have to transfer at least once, often twice, to get from one place to another. While this may reduce time spent inside a vehicle, that "saved" time is actually spent walking to another stop and/or waiting for the other vehicle instead, and the total travel time doesn't shorten in the end.

    The more transfers there are, the harder it becomes to plan the route from one place to another. The journey also becomes more susceptible to disruptions. One vehicle being late usually means being late to all the following transfers, meaning you will have to plan the whole route from the beginning again. To prepare for the risk of disruptions beforehand, you will have to add extra time for each transfer, which will again lengthen the total travel time.

    Also, the main lines simply don't have enough capacity for all the passengers that transfer from connecting lines. This has already resulted in overcrowded vehicles and people having to wait for the next one, or the one after that, because there just wasn't any room on the previous one. At rush hour, there's sometimes a whole queue of vehicles of the same main line, or additional vehicles on standby nearby in case the passenger capacity exceeds. What was saved by shortening the connecting lines comes back as added costs to the main lines and their constant maintenance due to overuse.

    In terms of convenience, transfers are also inconvenient and uncomfortable. Getting on and off vehicles, walking from stop to another, and waiting at the mercy of the elements are annoying enough even when you're not carrying anything, but they can quickly become nightmarish if you have a bag of groceries, luggage, a mobility aid or a pram with you. Besides, you're not paying the ticket fees to walk, you're paying for not having to!

  11. Interesting trivia presented, but a meandering presentation that is somewhat lacking in coherence, IMHO. It would seem the "action item" takeaway here is simply, "go with the flow".

  12. Anyone who has attempted multivariable optimization is familiar with the problem of local optima. From the vantage point of a local optimum, all directions seem to make the situation worse. Yet, what you have found is rarely the global optimum as there are typically many such locations in the variable space and it is not obvious you are in the most optimal of them. To find out you must dare to leave the local optimum and explore what appear to be less optimal regions.

  13. * I am glad you had put this professor as a speaker! He is not only knowledgeable but very intelligent and his inability to stand isn’t the problem, however his i engagement with the audience isn’t doing so well.

    However, if I was up there, I would flop so bad in all levels, so I have no place to take!

    This lecture is a masterpiece for anyone who wants to practice their speech.

    Here’s an example of a man I had watched who also didn’t stand and/or move around, but he connected!

  14. The same goes for labor migration! Importing cheap and unprotected workers from other countries, and exploiting them will have a negative impact on society and interethnic relations! This is not a call for stopping immigration but rather to treat labor migrants in an appropriate and civilized manner (as cocitizens) instead of exploiting and excluding them!

  15. The point is good but the words used seem odd.
    The problem he put forward isn't with growing efficiency but with the numbers of factors involved.
    His argument is that an Immediate efficiency increase when considering a subset of related factors may cause an overall reduction in efficiency.
    Or at least thats how i interpretated it.

  16. The artillery example was ridiculous. It's the same as saying "If the just didn't innovate they'd loose the war sooner." losing the war is what they dont want

  17. I feel like he was confused about his topic and used the wrong words to describe things, I don't care enough to untangle it perfectly… efficiency is not a problem, he cites examples where the pursuit of efficiency led to inefficiency – big surprise, then it wasn't overall efficient, duh. You experience this a lot in programming, you keep iterating smaller and smaller except at some point the program breaks from attempting to be too efficient, so you undo the last attempt and accept it. He also suggests being purposefully inefficient for serendipitous moments, except he's looking at it the wrong way, you could spend your entire life doing things inefficiently and never experience serendipity, you will have just wasted a lifetime. A more reasonable suggestion would be to allow time for living in the present which may or may not generate serendipitous moments, but as a time-gamble, even if you lose you will have enjoyed your time. Now, if you'll excuse me, I won't be letting this inefficient video waste more of my time.

  18. Gonna be honest, I didn’t understand a thing. I think my understanding of the word efficiency doesn’t line up with the talks.

  19. Another example: because digital cameras made it quick and easy to take photos and videos that aren't permanent (can be deleted but rarely are) and cost nothing to take more of (unlike film), instead of making sure every shot counts, people now take billions, if not trillions of worthless, pointless, duplicate, blurry, unwanted photos and videos that will never be seen again and only serve to clutter drives with countless files and bury the few that are actually worth keeping. :-

  20. This guy is a bitter negative myopic. He doesnt see opportunity he only sees pessimism . His view is just too narrow. In fact there is more to it than his simplistic pessimism. Basically his prose is Full of judgement and this limits what he can percieve.. open up mate..

  21. The EMR solves the problem it was intended to solve… inaccurate, hard to access medical records. OK, doctors may be able to see fewer patients, but I'd rather be able to seek advice from any doctor nationwide who are then able to accurately view my entire medial history. Quality is more important that quantity when it comes to people's health.

  22. Read Paul Watzlawick's book "Ultra Solutions – How to Fail Most Successfully" for more on that – with a ton of great anecdotes!

  23. "To be truly efficient, we need optimal inefficiency. The shortest path may be a curve rather than a straight line… Too much efficiency can weaken itself. But a bit of inspired inefficiency can strengthen it. Sometimes, the best way to move forward is to follow a circle." – Edward Tenner

  24. Quite a lot of examples is BS like:

    – french canon, it's made to not loose, not to end war faster

    – batteries and smartphones – manufacturers are trying to make as powerful phones as possible, but it means that power consuption is higher, one day battery life is convenient because we sleep at night, I'm 100% sure tat if we had 10x better batteries almost all of smartphones will be slimmer or more powerful, almost none of them would have 10 day battery life, because it's not that great feature for most of population

    – exercise and IOT, I mean those 2 are barely connected, it doesn't make a difference if you would walk for 6 seconds and flip a switch, what we need to do to stay healthy is to regulary exercise
    and a lot of more.

    Weird thing, I agree with conclusions, but from another perspective, most of those examples weren't about efficiency, they have shown short sightedness or lack of data, sometimes people try to determine what is more efficient without having enough data, what we need to do is to factor unknown into efficiency.

  25. Not sure if taking the wrong turn counts as being entirely inefficient, rather a way to make the most utility out of that mistake I guess. Though not all mistakes are equal.

  26. In summary:

    1. Take the scenic route – There's more to learn out there.
    2. Get up from the couch – Unhealthy minds and bodies are distracted and inefficient.
    3. Monetize your mistakes – (and embrace plenty ) Often the mistakes have been the million dollar ideas.
    4.Try the hard way – Summarizing is a more accurate way to learn, and half-assed learning can cost us more time than time spent actively learning by summarizing.
    5. Security through diversity – The world is constantly changing, perspective is important as processes become obsolete.
    6. Achieve safety through redundancy – Multiple well developed independent systems along with constant training prevent total failure.
    7. Be rationally extravagant – The pursuit of efficiency can be just as costly as that of extravagance. Therefore, it's the balance of the two that is the most efficient.

  27. I am confused…so efficiency can be a bad thing and inefficiency can be optimized,but the goal of optimizing it is to boost efficiency?

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