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An hour of coding in school could trump intuition

After my kids took a short programming course, I wondered about the future of human instinct. Do coding, analytics and other high-tech teachings numb intuition?

A few months back, two of my boys came home from elementary school to tell me they took part in one of those "hour of coding" classes that are popular around the world and are designed to make coding enjoyable for all ages.

I thought it would be fun to interview them about the programming class. In doing so, I got an unexpected lesson in coding, analytics and developing intuition. For example, my 9-year-old son told me he used a mouse to drag and drop coding snippets to help create a simple quest that's based on the popular Angry Birds video game. The coding exercise led to the creation of a scenario in which the yellow Angry Bird reached the antagonizing enemy pig.

"It is pretty fun doing the thing with the codes," my kid said.

What struck me most during the conversation was that I, a 44-year-old dad, said, "Wow, that's so great you guys are coding in school." I've never coded in my life. But to my young kids, coding -- like math and reading -- was just another subject taught in school.

But there's a possible downside. If up-and-coming generations are raised on the ideals behind the hour of coding -- and perhaps have a class on analytics or big data as well -- I worry that a person's instincts from life and business experiences will be ignored or dwarfed by technological advances.

Experience vs. analytics

Of course, I'm not positive I'm standing on the winning soapbox with my argument. With many industries still in the early stages of the so-called data revolution, it can be hard to fathom exactly what fortunes await them.

On the one hand, there are advantages to surrendering personal experience in favor of analytical information. For example, some doctors are ceding a bit of their medical intuition to data analytics that directs them to more effective medical treatments for their patients. This method forms the basis for precision medicine, which caters to approaches that statistically favor positive patient outcomes. Physicians have told me that using analytics in patient care is essentially a form of professional development -- in other words, a way for them to add value to their medical degrees.

On the other hand, anyone who follows the media business may have noticed the mud hole that The Boston Globe stepped in when it changed its newspaper delivery vendor in late December 2015. Instead of relying on the savvy of the contractors who knew the best delivery routes, the new vendor opted for routing software to determine delivery schedules. Not surprisingly, the software couldn't handle the plethora of winding roads, one-way streets and missing street signs in the Greater Boston area, which led to a weeks-long series of delays and overwhelming customer complaints.

I worry that a person's instincts from life and business experiences will be ignored or dwarfed by technological advances.

John Henry, the Globe's publisher and Boston Red Sox owner, issued a public apology to the thousands of readers who didn't get their daily newspapers. Henry aimed a portion of the blame at technology; some delivery routes that the software plotted were simply inefficient, he wrote.

There's no doubt that Globe bigwigs can now pen a data dissertation on what they learned about the day-to-day work of newspaper deliverers. "It takes resources, people and technology to bring a paper from our presses to you every day," Henry wrote. "That last mile relies on a team of dedicated delivery professionals who know just the spot where you like your paper placed, what your house looks like [and] the name of your dog."


Peaceful coexistence

In a Business Information column last year, guest columnist Celso Mello touched upon the kind of dilemma later faced by the Globe. He stated that data tools alone will not yield the best results. Instead, human curiosity needs to play a role. "Having staffers who understand the business intimately and see potential patterns or correlations is the essential component to effective use of analytics," Mello wrote.

If, after their hour of coding, my boys are married to number-crunching and programming in school, are they going to blindly follow technology without questioning it? I hope not. Otherwise, the so-called coding generation could be in danger of losing touch with their own instincts.

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