4 piece limit

What is the Four Pieces Limit?

It is a limit on how much a human can think about at a conscious level at once. The unconscious mind handles all the details of daily living, but we like to think that rational decisions about important things are made at a conscious level. It comes as a blow to the ego to realise we are not very good at rational decision-making.

Why is it important?

The limit is very low. Looking around the world, full of complex human artifacts and concepts, it is difficult to believe the limit is so low – we have been to the Moon, we are going to Mars, we edit genes – how can it be so low? Trial and error counts for a lot – it is interesting to speculate how the world would be different if the limit were ten, or fifty, or we could learn to increase the limit.

Why haven’t I heard of it before?

You have – it is built into the language – “Don’t try to do too much at once!”, the absent-minded professor who is so absorbed by a problem that they forget to dress properly.
You can see it in action when someone is holding a phone while driving – if their emotions become engaged, they forget they are driving and stare out the side window. Or when someone is describing something complex. They freeze everything around it so they can concentrate on one or a few things. You see it in the news – another preventable death in hospital because someone was bored, distracted or tired, and dispensed the wrong pills. Another project is a shambles, wasting billions – didn’t understand the specification, because they would have had it rewritten if they did, or worse, they thought it meant something else. The helicopter pilot who has had dangerous manoeuvres taken away from them, because the autopilot can do a better job in a rescue over a raging sea – too many things to think about at once.

Why am I hearing about it now?

When there was no obvious way around it, there was no point talking seriously about it – everyone makes mistakes, everyone has the same limit.

We think we can show a way around it, at least in certain areas.

What are those areas?

If a machine could read and “understand” English, it could keep large pieces of text alive, while people focused on specific facets. Possible areas:

  • Legislation, in development, frenzied amendment before passage, and operation.
  • Complex specifications, including their development, amendment, and control, including V and V. Sometimes, even the simplest specifications get messed up because no-one takes the time to carefully read them, and lives are lost.
  • Complex planning – from ICE to EV would be a good test.
  • Economic modelling – this has to be the poster child for the Four Pieces Limit, where the current focus can never be more than narrow.

Sounds Ambitious!

We have spent a long time on this, and we have defeated and buried many problems along the way without them turning into dragon’s teeth. With Climate Change looming, it would seem an excellent time to break the Four Pieces Limit.

Interactive Engineering