Obvious?

Earlier this year, Teppo Felin wrote a post for Aeon titled The fallacy of obviousness.

It reappeared this week on the Medium platform and gave me an opportunity to read it. I had been off re-reading some of the early 1960s intelligence augmentation and human-computer interaction literature so Teppo’s article was an excellent opportunity to focus on mind, cognition and rationality.

The starting point for Teppo is Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris’ (1999) paper Gorillas in Our Midst: Sustained Inattentional Blindness for Dynamic Events. Daniel and Christopher’s abstract starts with these sentences:

With each eye fixation, we experience a richly detailed visual world. Yet recent work on visual integration and change direction reveals that we are surprisingly unaware of the details of our environment from one view to the next: we often do not detect large changes to objects and scenes (‘change blindness’). Furthermore, without attention, we may not even perceive objects (‘inattentional blindness’). Taken together, these findings suggest that we perceive and remember only those objects and details that receive focused attention.

Teppo notes:

Now, it’s hard to argue with the findings of the gorilla experiment itself. It’s a fact that most people who watch the clip miss the gorilla. But it does not necessarily follow that this illustrates – as the study’s authors argue – that humans are ‘blind to the obvious’. A completely different interpretation of the gorilla experiment is possible.

In his discussion, he proposes:

… the very notion of visual prominence or obviousness is extremely tricky to define scientifically, as one needs to consider relevance or, to put differently, obviousness to whom and for what purpose?

and asserts:

The alternative interpretation says that what people are looking for – rather than what people are merely looking at – determines what is obvious. Obviousness is not self-evident.

The final part of Teppo’s paper resonated strongly with my reading of JCR Licklider’s (1960) discussion of human-computer interaction. Teppo suggests:

the current focus on human blindness and bias – across psychology, economics and the cognitive sciences – has contributed to the present orthodoxy that sees computers and AI as superior to human judgment.

He adds “computers and algorithms – even the most sophisticated ones – cannot address the fallacy of obviousness”.

Intelligence and rationality are more than just calculation or computation, and have more to do with the human ability to attend to and identify what is most relevant.

Why I was delighted to read Teppo’s article was that it gave me an opportunity to reflect on the generative and creative qualities of the human mind and the dynamic nature of observation … and reflect on long-standing conversations about intelligence amplification and augmentation initiated in the 1960s.

I did see the gorilla in the video when I first saw it and was surprised when colleagues did not. Our differences led to some fascinating conversations … which I take to be the force of Teppo’s post too.