A Hard Problem

When I was in school studying Computer Science, there was a phrase we used that I still totally love.  When designing an algorithm to execute a task, we would sometime refer to the task as "a hard problem".  This generic sounding phrase actually refers to something very specific. A "hard problem" is a problem that computers are intrinsically not good at solving. For instance, searching the entirety of the Internet for those 4 words you just typed into Google might seem like it would be a hard problem. After all, returning over 45 million results in 0.39 seconds seems hard. Searching the Internet, though, is not "a hard problem" because computers are great at keyword searching. It might be technically challenging for the programmer to write that algorithm, but it's not "a hard problem" for the computer. Computers love to search.


Searching YouTube for those four words, though? Much harder. Computers can search the title of the video, but what does that tell you? You really want to be searching the content of the video for relevance, and that is really hard. How does a computer even begin to parse all the info?


Similarly, scan Justin Bieber's into a PDF and ask a computer whose face it is. That is a hard problem. Computers are no good as picture recognition.


There's a whole security tool built around this concept: that's what CAPTCHA is for - creating problems that are easy for humans to solve, but really hard for spam-bots to solve. Solve the problem, then we trust that you're human.


And just like there are hard problems for a computer vs. a human, there are hard problems for an individual vs. a community. I've been looking for a job and an apartment in Detroit this month - a city where I don't live, a city that I don't even know that well. That is a really hard problem for an individual.


It's pretty easy for a community, though. A group of people that all live and work in and love Detroit have a huge knowledge base to share.  It's no surprise, then, that I found my apartment on recommendation from a friend I met at the Green Garage.


I've found an apartment, now I need a job - and I won't be surprised if that comes our of community, too.


When we're on our own, the world is full of hard problems.


Other people rock.