Thursday, December 19, 2013

Is the optimal life worth living

Like all good blogs, I’ll start off by quoting some historical philosopher. Socrates once said

“The unexamined life is not worth living”

I counter him with, is the over examined life worth living. In a day and age where everything we do is stored on someone’s server for our access, we can monitor just about everything we do. With products such as Nike’s running companion, apps that track your sleep or even apps that count how many push up’s you’ve done this year. The question is why do we download and use all these services. Mint helps us budget and learn our spending habits, dating sites help us find loved ones and car apps allow us to pay our insurance. All of this data makes us examine our lives way more that we did 40 years ago. The question then becomes, with all these apps and services, can we optimize life.  The optimization problem, mathematically is shown below

We are basically trying to minimize (or maximize) our function (say life), held to some constraints (say money, love, time). This may sound too romantic, but if I handed you the ultimate function to have the best life would you take it? How do you know that this optimal function is for you too, what if the function I handed you was optimal for you too? As a statistician, and someone who believes in the numbers, I somewhat struggle with this thought. Even if you handed me an optimal function to solve for, I’m not sure I would take it. First and foremost, that would be a really really complex equation, something that would take computers years to solve. I love reading books every Friday, but if this function said, reading books makes you 4 times less likely to make money, would I stop reading books?

I would say that the data era, as it continues to sweep the world, makes us more aware of our problems. As these errors become way more apparent, we will have the completely opposite problem we had 40 years ago. The question will no longer be what’s wrong with me, but rather which of these 70 problems should I tackle first. Will we have apps that help us manage our apps? Will optimly, the name of said app, do a cost benefit analysis on the fly for you? Will it tell you at what point you should have your last drink if you plan on making that 10:45 flight tomorrow. Will optimly take into consideration the 3 hours you were chatting up the girl for, will it vibrate to say ‘Bro, you had your shot, time to go home’.  Image if we examined all these factors at once, if we worried that the drink I had Tuesday night at 11:01 (which was a good one mind you), how that would effect me 6 months down the road, I’m sure data scientists are developing apps that help determine this. Don’t get me wrong, I love data, I love optimization, but I think sometimes we have to take a step back and ask ourselves; are we over thinking the problem?

Smarter Data

If data is here to help us make better decisions, and ultimately optimize the life, do we comprehend the other percentages? My case in point is, in the NFL, you are way better off going for it on 4 down and 2 then you are either punting the ball or going for a field goal. However, every time a coach does it , he is either lucky or dumb, never smart. The dumb portion, being that 60% of the time he will make the first down and the other 40% he will not make the first down. The sad part is, that’s life. You can use Optimly as exactly as it says, in bed by 10 pm, only 2 drinks [to avoid cancer of course], you can bring a girl flowers but she may still not like you. Life, as I have harped on, is about the percentages. Its what makes it interesting, we a subtle betting against the odds, we doing things that optmily (knows or thinks depending on your interpretation) are dumb, like  never stay out past 2 am. Yet some of our best stories are Optimly’s worst nightmares, the staying up as the sunrises with your best friends, not studying until right before the examine, spending way too much a gift for someone or my personal favorite, having a competition to see who can chug the beer fastest. I much be preaching too much, but life isn’t supposed to be optimized, its supposed to be lived. Use the data to put you in the right places, but don’t be afraid to shy against the ‘optimal path’ every once in a while.

1 comment:

BT said...

I agree with your general sentiments. As you point out, access to data can drive us to look inward, to over analyze the micro decisions and I think, shrink our worlds, distract us from what's important (friends, human connection... love). I'm more excited about how data can inform our collective decision making and how it can put into context the summation of our daily individual choices to help us understand and respond to what they mean for our local communities and planet. For instance: paper vs. plastic, what retailers we patron, consumption habits, car vs. public transit, voting patterns... How can more digestible data build better citizens?