Fortunate Correlations

Peter MerrittFunLeave a Comment

The more successful his efforts proved, the more pressure Dr. Jones and his team felt. He grew increasingly concerned that they would miss something vital. The most direct solution would be to hire more staff, which he considered, somewhat skeptically. Unfortunately, at that point all the ablest people had been fitted into posts, and it was now difficult to pries them out.

Jones recognized that “there was much to be said for using as few individuals as possible, and stretching them to their utmost.” This concept should not be unknown to APLers! He recorded the following in a 1942 memorandum to Frank Inglis, at that time the Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Intelligence):

“It has been part of our policy to keep the staff to its smallest possible limits consistent with safety, because the larger the field any one man can cover, the more chance there is of those fortunate correlations which only occur when one brain and one memory can connect two or more remotely gathered facts.

Jones was so good at finding these “fortunate correlations” that he notes it “was to lead some of our associates to think that I had a great source of information that I never revealed to anybody outside!” What is perhaps most surprising to the modern reader is the volume and character of information that Jones’ team of five absorbed every day, closely reading a daily input of about 150 sheets of foolscap paper (think A4 plus a bit), besides attending meetings, visiting R.A.F. stations, and so forth. (Oh, the good old days, we sigh today—the days before the flood of social media, blogs, e-mail, RSS, TMI, and LMAO!)

Lessons for today – and possibilities for tomorrow

The population of the world has roughly tripled between 1940 and 2016, but most of us post, link, tweet, and cast far more words each day than even a prolific wartime journalist typed in a week. The real issue, however, is not how many words circulate but whether we can find Jones’ “fortunate correlations” in the daily flood. Of course, you could argue that more words mean more opportunities for correlations, particularly given the ability of technology to gather, filter, and mine. Alternatively, we could argue that the deluge simply overwhelms core human abilities. Technology is both sorcerer and apprentice in this case, and we can’t help but wonder if Dr. Jones would long for 1940 if he were still with us.

But as the first generation of IT tools has exacerbated the problem, making it easier to write and disseminate both Booker prize-winners and the most useless, instant squawks and thoughts, so the next generation of systems will – could – start to help. ‘Natural Language Processing’ (NLP) is an important part of AI-type developments. ‘Connected Neural Networks’ and ‘Deep Learning’ (which ‘learn’ rules) are a devil to teach, but unlike the flesh-and-blood mob (i.e. humans), will of course never forget – and can be easily duplicated. These developments have made the likes of SIRI and Cortana commonplace now. Think how such tools could soon operate – and co-operate – on currently specialist intellectual tasks like database searching, trend, text and speech analysis…

So, dear reader, if you don’t know what those terms mean, I would look them up now – before your PC does it for you.