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Robotic Behaviour

When robots learn to adopt the human habits of pilers, filers and hoarders they will become more credible – otherwise they will just be little computer bits. Software programmers constantly mimic human behaviours in an effort to make computer responses more appealing to humans – thereby enhancing productivity. Could they do more?

Most computer programmes that we use on a daily basis are torn between conflicting human behaviours – just like the guy on the right who files everything in neat plastic folders and lever arch boxes; and the gal on the left who seems to pile everything so haphazardly across her desk. Is there anything to suggest that filers are more efficient than pilers? Absolutely NOT!

The most effective retrieval system we ever witnessed was practiced by a solicitor named Horace. He was an apparent hoarder and an extremely untidy filer. He embraced the notion of “least recently viewed”. To the untrained eye his office was a complete mess with an array of metal filing cabinets; wooden shelving, ample floor space, high ceilings and a bedroom wardrobe replete with mirrors! But his filing system worked a treat. Everything was piled high, initially, to the left of the room using whatever space was available. There was no signage, no labelling and no discernible markings.

Over time everything he most recently used was to his right and all that was least recently viewed was piled high to the left. When he ran out of space, which was frequently, the solution was easy – get rid of the furthest pile to the left. There was never any need to check the contents of that pile – he just shredded the lot. Tidiness can be convenient sometimes but Horace didn’t see it as a virtue.

Some people recoil in horror at the thought of throwing anything out while others have no such compulsions. There is no evidence that one behaviour is any more effective than the other. Hoarders often have the mistaken belief that their files of stuff will be of some future value to them or to others. Non-hoarders see no value in filing the stuff in the first place.

A new book by Tim Harford suggests that the most productive workers are pilers – apparently the accumulation of documents is a physical reminder to complete a task; whereas filers fall into the trap of “out of sight; out of mind”. This all indicates that computer programmes could become more efficient by piling data in a disorderly fashion and explicitly following Horace’s practice of least recently viewed.

A casual glance around MMPI’s offices shows evidence of pilers, filers and hoarders working in perfect harmony, albeit mischievously. The pilers don’t realise that their piles have been mis-sorted; the filers haven’t noticed that their files have been re-labelled and the hoarders haven’t missed their stuff, which has long since been shredded. We believe it all means that MMPI has more time for more important things like meeting our customers. That is something that computers have yet to master!

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