Framers | Kenneth Cukier

Summary of: Framers: Human Advantage in an Age of Technology and Turmoil
By: Kenneth Cukier


Dive into the fascinating world of ‘Framers: Human Advantage in an Age of Technology and Turmoil’ by Kenneth Cukier and discover the power of human framing – our ability to create, analyze, and apply mental models for understanding and solving complex problems. Learn about the impact of framing on everything from political decisions to scientific discoveries and explore the three key components that make up a frame: causality, counterfactuals, and constraints. This compelling book summary will not only teach you how to harness your innate framing abilities but also showcase the importance of fostering frame pluralism for continued progress in our rapidly changing world.

Power of Human Framing

The discovery of antibiotics in 1928 brought a revolution in medicine, but their widespread use has led to an increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Regina Barzilay, a professor in artificial intelligence at MIT, reframed the problem by focusing on identifying substances that killed bacteria instead of recreating antibiotic molecules. Barzilay’s team used a computer algorithm to search for potential bacteria-killers, discovering the molecule halicin. This breakthrough emphasizes the importance of human capacity for framing problems, highlighting the necessity of combining human creativity with AI rather than solely relying on either one to solve complex issues.

Antibiotics, discovered in 1928, have been lifesavers for millions. Unfortunately, with the widespread use of these medicines, some bacteria have grown resistant, causing once-treatable infections to become deadly again. The scientific community searched for new alternatives, but constantly creating molecules similar to old antibiotics only led to temporary solutions as bacteria soon adapted.

Enter Regina Barzilay, an artificial intelligence professor at MIT, who approached the problem with a different angle, exemplifying a crucial human ability: framing issues in new ways. Barzilay wondered if, instead of recreating antibiotic molecules, it would be more effective to identify substances that eradicated bacteria.

Barzilay’s team used a computer algorithm to explore numerous molecules and their potential as bacteria-killers. In early 2020, they discovered a molecule called halicin, which held the promising potential to treat drug-resistant diseases. With Barzilay’s reframing of the problem and the use of AI, they found a solution to a seemingly insurmountable challenge.

Despite their success, many attributed it solely to AI, neglecting the essential human component in the discovery. It was Barzilay’s reframing that shifted the research approach, and her team chose the specific compounds for the computer to analyze. Moreover, they utilized their biological expertise to confirm halicin’s effectiveness.

While AI serves as a powerful objective decision maker, it lacks the ability to reframe problems creatively. Relying on AI alone will not solve all our future challenges, but neither can we rely only on human intuition. Decisions based purely on emotional judgment can lead to harmful consequences, such as the rise of populism or cancel culture.

The key to unlocking solutions for our most pressing concerns—climate change, pandemics, and social injustice to name a few—lies in capitalizing on the human power to frame problems in new ways. By combining human creativity and the technological might of AI, we open the door to novel perspectives and innovative resolutions to tackle our greatest challenges.

The Power of Framing

The concept of framing, which refers to the mental structures that shape the way we perceive and interpret information, has far-reaching consequences in every aspect of our lives. From the Soviet Union’s disastrous agricultural policies and the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic to our understanding of scientific phenomena, getting the right frame is crucial. Identifying and applying the appropriate frame helps us better comprehend our world and can determine the success or failure of policies and ideas.

In the 1930s, the Soviet Union sought to apply communist principles to agriculture, adopting Lysenkoism – a theory of plant genetics grounded in Marxist-Leninist ideology. This approach led to bizarre beliefs, such as the notion that crops could be densely planted without competing for resources, mirroring how citizens in a communist society would supposedly refrain from competing with their peers. The dire consequences of this framing included massive crop failure, famine, and death.

Framing has the power to shape our world in countless ways, emphasizing the importance of selecting the right frame to accurately interpret our surroundings. The COVID-19 pandemic offers a vivid example of how framing dictates outcomes on a global scale. While New Zealand framed the pandemic as a severe outbreak similar to SARS, enacting robust monitoring systems and policies, Britain regarded it as akin to seasonal flu and opted for the controversial herd immunity approach. Consequently, New Zealand became COVID-free within months; meanwhile, Britain suffered one of the highest fatality rates worldwide.

Frames not only help us make sense of the present but also provide insight into what has yet to be discovered. For instance, in 2010, scientists employed Einstein’s frame of general relativity to predict the paths of two black holes in a gravitational dance. In essence, frames serve as a lens to explain and understand our complex world.

Recognizing the critical nature of framing raises the question: what are the components that constitute a frame? To tap into the full potential of framing, it is vital to examine the building blocks that influence our perception of reality. This exploration will pave the way for a more nuanced understanding of the frames that shape our lives and the world around us.

Mastering Causal Inferences

Ben Bernanke’s response to the 2008 financial crisis demonstrates the power of understanding causality, allowing him to frame problems effectively and make well-reasoned decisions. Although humans have a natural ability to draw causal inferences, our understanding can be flawed. By asking ourselves critical questions about the reason behind a causal relationship, we can refine our assumptions and become better problem-solvers.

During the 2008 financial crisis, economist Ben Bernanke stood out for his unique approach to preventing a complete disaster. When others believed that bailing out individual firms would lead to negative incentives, Bernanke thought differently. Drawing from his study of the 1929 market crash and the Great Depression, he recognized the importance of the central bank’s response to economic repercussions. By directing the Federal Reserve to purchase assets from banks, he supplied them with new cash to stimulate the economy.

Analyzing causal connections was crucial for Bernanke, as it allowed him to understand system relationships and better frame the problem. One of the main takeaways is that well-reasoned causal inferences can lead to improved problem-solving.

Causal understanding is not unique to humans; animals can also learn basic causal relationships, such as a dog understanding that performing a trick yields a treat. However, they cannot extrapolate this understanding to other contexts. Similarly, artificial intelligence requires explicit causal frames to operate effectively.

Humans have a natural ability to draw causal connections, but we can also be easily misled. For example, one might assume that a rooster’s crowing causes the sun to rise after observing this pattern. This assumption would be disproven when the sun rises even without a rooster’s crow. To improve our understanding of causality, we must critically question why certain events occur, explore underlying assumptions, and revise them if necessary.

By enhancing our causal understanding, we can become better problem-solvers and decision-makers. Therefore, when confronted with a causal relationship, we should continually challenge our assumptions and seek well-reasoned explanations.

Embracing Counterfactual Thinking

During the 2018 World Cup final, referee’s decision to count an “own goal” for Croatia by visualizing an alternate reality served as an example of using counterfactual thinking. Counterfactuals enable us to consider alternate possibilities and causal relationships, preventing us from hastily assigning blame and improving our judgment. From everyday situations such as family dynamics to high-stakes decisions like the Cuban Missile Crisis involving President John F. Kennedy, counterfactual thinking plays a crucial role in expanding our perspectives and enhancing our causal reasoning skills.

In the 2018 World Cup final, French striker Antoine Griezmann took a free kick that ultimately ended as an “own goal” for Croatia. This decision by the referee stemmed from imagining an alternate reality – a counterfactual – in which the Croatian goalie would have managed to catch the ball without the interference of Croatian defender Mario Mandžukić. Such a counterfactual approach allows us to envision the world in different ways and explore alternative outcomes.

Counterfactual thinking facilitates our understanding of various possible causal relationships. For instance, if you find the last chocolate chip cookie missing from the jar, your first instinct may be to blame your child. However, by considering an alternate possibility – that your spouse might have eaten it – you avoid jumping to conclusions too quickly. Counterfactuals not only apply to everyday situations but also hold significant importance in impactful decisions and global events.

A prime example of counterfactual thinking’s value lies in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. President John F. Kennedy, having learned from his past mistake in the Bay of Pigs disaster, rejected the military’s advice for a massive strike on the Soviet Union. Instead, he requested his advisers to think of alternative solutions, which eventually led to a blockade, thus averting a nuclear war.

Ultimately, counterfactuals allow us to ponder various options, improve our judgment, and broaden our focus. Embracing this way of thinking helps strengthen our powers of causal reasoning in everyday life as well as significant decision-making situations.

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