Saturday, February 14, 2015

Let Organizations be Smart

Why is my smart home so fucking dumb?

There are generally two philosophies to design a complex system. One is to centralize all control to a brain that aggregates data from all sensors and decides what to do with its agents. Another is to distribute the intelligence to its agents.

A smart home is an example of a complex system. Let's say one of the design goal is to have motion activated lights that turn on with moving objects in the room and turn off after some inactivity. A centralized design would send motion data triggers to the brain; the brain would figure out which light to turn on, and send the command to turn on the light. The brain would keep a timer and turn off the light as needed. A distributed design would build the motion sensor and the timer right into the light switch in the same room that is hard wired to the light bulb.

One might argue that the distributed design is inflexible. What if you want the motion sensor to do something else other than turning on the light bulb in the same room? But the problem with centralized design is that it is a single point of failure. Imagine when you are upgrading the software in the brain, or if you somehow bricked the brain, then you can't control any light in any room in the home. How inconvenient would that be?

If you take inspiration from a living organism, the responsibility of control is split depending on the function. A creature is operated by the brain for objective, strategy, and coordination (e.g. hungry, find food, eat), but functions like reflexes that need critical response time and heart beats that need critical reliability are regulated locally. Not all actions need involvement from the brain, only the actions that need to be coordinated.

A home that needs to be smart could take this hybrid design as well. The light switch could have a builtin motion sensor and timer, but it could also be controlled by a brain to override its function.

This similar hybrid design can also be applied to corporate decision making. You always hire people who can think independently and figure out on their own how to get things done, but you lead them with objective, strategy, and coordination.
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