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The “Wisdom” of Efficient Behavior

 
Destination Immortality
 
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Destination Immortality
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01 February 2012 13:25
 

I’ve got a two part question here, the second of which may not be necessary depending on how the first is answered.

To begin let’s define efficient behavior as the lowest energy cost behavior. In context this means for whatever course of action is available, the determining factor for most appropriate action to take is engaging the course with the fewest energy requirements. An example, I’d think, would be our entire natural world, with multiple species evolved to fill the niches (exploit the unappropriated space/energy resources) of their local environments. Evolution has seemed to determine, for instance, that a flying squirrel need not the full capacity of flight in order to survive, only what is necessary to jump among trees or perhaps from trees to the ground. Presumably the purpose of such evolutionary results is to maximize survival potential within a limited available energy parameter.

Considering corporations, it occurred to me a great deal of economic behavior is determined by the most cost effective, or efficient, expenditure of resources. Efficiency, in economic terms, is seemingly inextricably linked to the concept of profit, and drives such behavior as outsourcing labor tasks to cheaper markets, or why Very Smart People will go to great lengths to demonstrate just how much economically “better” it is to spend a dollar in Africa versus spending that dollar in a developed country. Profit, of course, seems inextricably linked to the survival of a corporation. So the idea of efficiency may appear very attractive to corporations.

And so it is we must consider if economic efficiency, economic behavior driven by the idea that cost effective solutions lead to higher profit which leads to better survival prospects for the corporation, is also the lowest energy cost behavior for the corporation. Since selling a medium cost average technology level farm device to a poor farmer in a poor country will definitely result in a sharper gradient of life quality change than attempting to employ that mediocre device in a developed country with advance crop and field techniques already in place, efficient economic choices being equal to low energy cost appears to be true.

Keeping in mind, all the while, that the reason spiders or ants or other wildlife do not have art or music per se, or other luxuries of mental produce, is likely due to the non-existent impact those luxuries would have on the survival of the wildlife in question, here is my first question, expressed variously:

Is efficient behavior the wise choice? is it the right choice? Is it moral to be efficient?

 
ChaosRules
 
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01 February 2012 22:31
 

Interesting post. I will mention one thing at this point…you use the terms “efficient” and “effective” throughout your post, and although you do separate the two, sometimes you seem to use them interchangeably. From a business perspective, I would argue that it is a better goal to be effective rather than efficient. Certainly, efficiency in business processes (such as in manufacturing) would almost certainly be more effective, but efficienct does not always equal effective. Example: employees can be working extremely efficiently and doing the tasks that they are doing with the utmost in speed and quality, but what if they are working on the wrong things? That way, they are very efficient but not at all effective, and are not driving value for your company. On the other hand, they may be slightly less efficient in their work processes, but still being effective in their jobs. You should be effective first, and then determine how to further improve through efficiency.

 
Antisocialdarwinist
 
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02 February 2012 00:30
 

Someone hijacked DI’s account. The real DI doesn’t have a SHIFT key.

 
 
helal
 
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03 February 2012 02:57
 

As the works of Richard Dawkins will attest, the world brought to us by evolution is rife with extravagant inefficiencies: peacock tails, tree trunks, and rams’ horns just a few examples,  Corporations today are also chocked full of extravagance: eight figure CEO salaries for companies on the verge of bankruptcy and the like,  Yet for all the inefficiencies of capitalism societies that have attempted nice efficient planned economies have consistently been crushed by their extravagant counterparts.  Perhaps, there’s some kernel of wisdom to be found in this somewhere but I’m not sure I am up to the challenge of finding it.

 
eudemonia
 
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05 February 2012 00:00
 

As Dawkins would attest to…what good is half an eye? Not sure exactly but it is better than zero eyes!

In evolution, efficiency is judged by living long enough to breed and pass on one’s selfish genes.

 
 
helal
 
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06 February 2012 02:25
 
Avogadro’s number - 04 February 2012 11:00 PM

In evolution, efficiency is judged by living long enough to breed and pass on one’s selfish genes.

Reproductive success of an individual is certainly the key driving factor in evolution.  However, if one looks at the systems that arise from the competition amongst individuals to achieve reproductive success, the results are rarely what an engineer would deem an efficient use of resources.  Perhaps a business executive might judge the peacock’s tail a cost effective marketing tool, but I wouldn’t know—I’m not one of them.

 
Destination Immortality
 
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06 February 2012 18:07
 
Stylo - 01 February 2012 11:16 PM
ChaosRules - 01 February 2012 09:31 PM

Interesting post. I will mention one thing at this point…you use the terms “efficient” and “effective” throughout your post, and although you do separate the two, sometimes you seem to use them interchangeably. From a business perspective, I would argue that it is a better goal to be effective rather than efficient. Certainly, efficiency in business processes (such as in manufacturing) would almost certainly be more effective, but efficienct does not always equal effective. Example: employees can be working extremely efficiently and doing the tasks that they are doing with the utmost in speed and quality, but what if they are working on the wrong things? That way, they are very efficient but not at all effective, and are not driving value for your company. On the other hand, they may be slightly less efficient in their work processes, but still being effective in their jobs. You should be effective first, and then determine how to further improve through efficiency.

Effectiveness is always the key. Attempting to drive efficiencies without proper, effective systems in place is a recipe for high rates of non-conforming product, scrap, rework and other manufacturing “no no’s.” Of course, as you say, it may not be a quality issue (although, we have a lot of fun with the quality department who maintains oversight over the “systems,” which in this case is an automotive standard to which we need to be certified) but something so basic as a lack of effective communication between shifts, the result of which is the efficient processing of the wrong part number.

 

well i did define efficiency as the lowest energy cost behavior. in that sense, i think any behavior that is efficient must also be effective, since, to use the last example quoted there, mass production of the wrong part would only lead to a greater energy expenditure later on in having to reorganize, update the assembly lines or whatever, gather more parts or materials, and then begin assembing the correct part.

so, i understand the point you guys are making, i hope. however i don’t believe that efficiency, as i defined it for the purpose of this discussion, is open to the kinds of questions you two seem to be imposing.

and in the end, i think consideration of the comments you guys are making only serves to reinforce what i have proposed. inefficiencies, such as producing the wrong kinds of parts or whatever else that might jam up the system, lead to less effective systems, and less effective systems end up killing themselves off by being more vulnerable to sudden diminished access to resources. therefore if we are looking at a natural world that evolves over time we are bound to see inefficiencies crop up from time to time but that overall there should be clear indicators of behavior that is far more efficient, and therefore more effective, than other kinds.

perhaps, taking evolution into account, i should define efficiency as the lowest energy cost behavior leading to results for (a specified individual, or group) that are superior to what a previous generation could accomplish.

will that suit you? seems to be an improvement to me. for now.

my main question is beyond the comprehension of plants, or other animals, insects, fish, fungi, etc. this is something we enjoy as a luxury, perhaps because our intelligence is self-reflective. since we can deconstruct behavior instead of merely enact it, should we, as corporations seem to increasingly do, uphold efficiency, i.e. maximized survivalism, as our guiding principle? is it moral to do so? if not, what is the moral choice?

 
Destination Immortality
 
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06 February 2012 18:41
 
jbooher - 03 February 2012 01:57 AM

As the works of Richard Dawkins will attest, the world brought to us by evolution is rife with extravagant inefficiencies: peacock tails, tree trunks, and rams’ horns just a few examples,  Corporations today are also chocked full of extravagance: eight figure CEO salaries for companies on the verge of bankruptcy and the like,  Yet for all the inefficiencies of capitalism societies that have attempted nice efficient planned economies have consistently been crushed by their extravagant counterparts.  Perhaps, there’s some kernel of wisdom to be found in this somewhere but I’m not sure I am up to the challenge of finding it.


ahh…hmm. well on some level i think you may be confusing my definition of efficiency with what you’ve put me in mind of another word: optimization. as i answered to the other two fellas, if we’re considering the world, which i called in the other post “a natural world,” since, obviously, what has occurred on the planet has done so through natural processes, and, since if we admit that humanity is a result of natural processing also, that our marks upon the earth may also be called natural, but anyway if we look at the world we can consider the whole of it to be an ever-evolving system, and certainly within that system we might expect to find less than ideal circumstances on occasion.

if we did not, we might have the privilege of saying we lived in a perfect world.

since that isn’t the case, obviously you can say, “well hey that peacock tail isn’t very efficient.” and i might be inclined to agree. yet, seeing that peacocks and literally every other living thing on earth are now totally at the mercy of human beings for their ultimate survival, at least with regard to the fact that whether or not habitats of other living organisms are ultimately appropriated for human use is a “no contest” kind of decision that we will either make or we won’t, and the peacocks and other creatures of the world won’t have a say in it, and if any are spared at all it will only be so far as they can serve our needs for survival, then i would also have to point this out to you and ask, “so much good their inefficiencies have done them, haven’t they?”

it is the same for sickened and swollen corporate infrastructures where in some fashion or other a portion of the organization feeds disproportionately on the rest so to ultimately lead to that corporation’s inability to progress in such a way as to keep it relevant for an evolving human society’s needs or interests. at any given point, no, we can’t say one way or the other which ones, despite their flaws or advantages, might topple or when, but over time significant and mappable, and therefore eventually predictable, patterns should emerge.

additionally, since i am now defining efficiency as lowest energy cost behavior that over time results in superior outcomes for those involved compared to a previous generation, i think we should carefully consider the biases we have in placing a full eye next to a half eye and going “whoa that half eye is so inefficient!” it is important to remember when i mentioned the flying squirrel earlier i was aware of the idea of environmental niches and that, for maximum survival to be achieved, or one might say maximum efficiency, for the greatest part of our earth’s history natural environments have been basically stable and slow to change and therefore what is required to maximally survive in any given environment is perhaps not so quickly dismissed as an easy answer about what is or isn’t most efficient.

so while we may not personally look at half an eye or half a wing, or an ability to climb walls or ceilings that lasts “only a few seconds,” for example, and so on, to be - as you put it - very efficient, i think it is important to note our own biases in examining these facets of natural life, and to keep in mind the question of just how much energy was required for these species to develop these traits.

do we think, on average, most species have gone far beyond the bounds of the energy resources available to them in their environmental niches in determining what physiological and other traits to develop, or did they stay within those bounds? moreover, is it more or less likely that those who could operate on even lower energy requirements than others might have some kind of advantage when available energy suddenly drops for (to the point of view of the lowly organism) no apparent reason?

what is your opinion?

(also, as far as tree trunks specifically are concerned, i am surprised you brought this up. how would you say tree trunks are inefficient?)

 
ChaosRules
 
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06 February 2012 21:17
 
Destination Immortality - 06 February 2012 05:07 PM

perhaps, taking evolution into account, i should define efficiency as the lowest energy cost behavior leading to results for (a specified individual, or group) that are superior to what a previous generation could accomplish.

will that suit you? seems to be an improvement to me. for now.

Well, I don’t have research to back me up, but I don’t really agree with that statement either. Although efficiency can certainly be a good thing (and it often is), why would something that took less energy necessarily be better? If you are trying to compare successive generations, what are you setting as a baseline to compare against? As you know, people and civilizations evolve, so it would be very difficult to say that this behavior or that behavior was more efficient without setting the values to a common measurement. Example just off the top of my head: farms and families used to live hand to mouth and rarely would be able to supply much more than themselves or a small hamlet. Now farms have advanced technology and machinery to assist them in being more efficient and producing much, much more food. Is farming today more efficient than in yesteryears? Of course it is. Is it superior? I don’t know. I bet farmers in those days were generally more fit because of less reliance on technology. Which is better for the human race, being fit or producing more carrots? Now I just made all that up without any backup, but I think that you can apply the principle to almost anything.

So why should lowest energy cost always be the best? Sometimes you need to expend more energy to achieve greater results. If you’re saying that, given the exact same result, that action which takes the least energy is the best given any options or ways of achieving that end, I suppose I could support that for many things. I still think that the end result is more important than the path to get there. In your previous rebuttals to companies that work on the wrong things, those companies may never get to the right result, so they were just very efficient but doing the wrong things. Sure, if you assume that those companies would correct their mistakes and do it the right way after screwing up, of course it’s better to be efficient and do it right the first time (but that happens rarely - people are people and they can’t always be 100% efficient).

 
helal
 
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07 February 2012 01:20
 
Destination Immortality - 06 February 2012 05:41 PM

(also, as far as tree trunks specifically are concerned, i am surprised you brought this up. how would you say tree trunks are inefficient?)

The tree trunk inefficiency example was a reference to Dawkins—I believe it was in The Blind Watchmaker where he uses the tree trunk as an example of a product of competition for competition’s sake.  If all the trees could somehow agree to only grow a few feet tall (so his argument goes) just as much sunlight could be harvested without the exorbitant costs of maintaining a towering trunk.

 
helal
 
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07 February 2012 02:02
 
Destination Immortality - 06 February 2012 05:41 PM

...since i am now defining efficiency as lowest energy cost behavior that over time results in superior outcomes for those involved compared to a previous generation..

Given this narrow definition, efficiency is truly the very epitome of wisdom.  In a complex uncertain world, however, this is an honor that can only be awarded retroactively, if at all.  More typical uses of the term efficiently in common parlance often refer to activities of questionable wisdom as in “the ruthless efficiency with which the Nazi Party seized control of Germany.”

 
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07 February 2012 02:16
 

I think DI’s OP makes a common error with respect to evolutionary processes, which is that the results of those processes at any point in time represent an optimum end-point. As several respondents have already pointed out, optimization is only approached. Moreover, there is never any definite end-point; what we can see at any moment is the current state of the processes, which will continue as long as the substrate requirements for their continuance remain.

Aside from that, DI brings up the notion of economic factors in morality. This is something that isn’t done enough. Morality is fundamentally about allocation of resources of one sort or another, and so is intimately tied up with economic concerns.

My opinion is that both efffectiveness and efficiency can be moral concerns. Effectiveness is obviously a moral concern (to whit, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”), but needs to be balanced against the exemplary effects of attempting some actions even if they are not effective. For example, screaming that someone has fallen overboard is not in itself very effective, but may be useful in prompting more effective action by those capable of it. Efficiency is a more nebulous moral concern. Obviously, it is worthwhile to try to gain the maximum benefit from any action, but the cost of achieving that maximization has to be balanced against other factors. For example, a bucket brigade is not a very efficient manner of putting out a fire, in terms of human labor, but may be the best method if it puts out the fire in less time than it would take for fire trucks to arrive.

[ Edited: 07 February 2012 02:36 by Poldano]
 
 
ChaosRules
 
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07 February 2012 20:11
 

Agreed Paldano. Good post, you were able to say what I was thinking but was unable to articulate.

 
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09 February 2012 01:41
 
ChaosRules - 07 February 2012 07:11 PM

Agreed Paldano. Good post, you were able to say what I was thinking but was unable to articulate.

Thanks. I was hoping to do just that.

 
 
Destination Immortality
 
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12 February 2012 23:05
 
Poldano - 07 February 2012 01:16 AM

I think DI’s OP makes a common error with respect to evolutionary processes, which is that the results of those processes at any point in time represent an optimum end-point. As several respondents have already pointed out, optimization is only approached. Moreover, there is never any definite end-point; what we can see at any moment is the current state of the processes, which will continue as long as the substrate requirements for their continuance remain.

 

on the contrary, i think i’ve made it clear (painfully so, my cynical side interjects) that i’m willing to view evolution as an ever changing continuum and not to extract broad conclusions from any one point on it. since we live in a universe possessing a quality we label as “time” it seems necessary to do so anyway.

as you pointed out yourself, many are saying optimization is approached. nobody seems to know why this might be, however. why should evolution tend toward optimization? what do you mean by optimization, anyway, with respect to evolving system? what are they optimizing for? i think optimization is potentially altogether different than efficiency, and i’m specifically arguing it seems apparent that, over time, more efficient systems are more likely to survive than less efficient ones.

assessing that we have some 3.5-4.5 billion years of evolution here in local space, all i intend to say is, given fluctuations in temperature, land mass distribution, atmospheric composition, and all the other things that have changed on earth’s surface in that time, do people, namely you (whoever is reading) think earth has created more efficient systems, or less efficient systems? and by systems i mean living organisms. keeping in mind booher specifically acknowledged that trees compete, it behooves me to note that indeed all life appears to compete, and so in a competing world is it more or less likely that more efficient systems can better grapple with the harsh realities of occasional resource scarcity or loss.

it is, as i have asked it, not exactly a narrow question. even the temperature of an organism’s surroundings can be considered a resource.

also, i am wondering just how energy intensive growing a large tree trunk really is? considering the effort is diffused over many years, often decades, i do not understand how a tree, on any given day, works very hard or expends much effort. plants in the wild are typically less than 1% photosynthetically efficient, yet considering plants are literally everywhere, they appear to accomplish a lot on so little. and hell its not like we rub baby seal meat on our wounds. most of our effective medicines historically come from plants also.

 

Poldano - 07 February 2012 01:16 AM

Aside from that, DI brings up the notion of economic factors in morality. This is something that isn’t done enough. Morality is fundamentally about allocation of resources of one sort or another, and so is intimately tied up with economic concerns.

My opinion is that both efffectiveness and efficiency can be moral concerns. Effectiveness is obviously a moral concern (to whit, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”), but needs to be balanced against the exemplary effects of attempting some actions even if they are not effective. For example, screaming that someone has fallen overboard is not in itself very effective, but may be useful in prompting more effective action by those capable of it. Efficiency is a more nebulous moral concern. Obviously, it is worthwhile to try to gain the maximum benefit from any action, but the cost of achieving that maximization has to be balanced against other factors. For example, a bucket brigade is not a very efficient manner of putting out a fire, in terms of human labor, but may be the best method if it puts out the fire in less time than it would take for fire trucks to arrive.

 

it is morality with which i am ultimately concerned. i am wondering that if evolution is likely, or even probable, to encourage sentient intelligence, why has it only evolved in 1 (arguably 2-4) species, and why did it take so long?

if evolution in a limited resource environment tends toward efficiency (i believe it does) and if we attempt to mirror that efficiency in our lives (i believe the modern global economy does) then are we using the most intelligent system we can? the most moral - the most wise?

perhaps it is necessary to note the speed with which evolution works, and humanity’s ability to surpass, or maybe compress,  comparable levels of activity or change in very brief amounts of time. although i find it incomprehensible to imagine that something can become more moral if one merely does it slowly.

 
helal
 
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13 February 2012 01:11
 

In an internal combustion engine efficiency is a ratio of the energy generated to the volume of fuel consumed.  The Prius engine has the highest efficiency of any commercially available gasoline engine, but it also has the lowest power output relative to its size.  This is a common engineering tradeoff, often less efficient systems can achieve higher energy densities than their economical counterparts.  How efficient an engineered system should be is a judgement call that often hinges on how scarce or expensive a resource is relative the benefits of the higher power outputs. 

Biological systems in environments in which some specific resource has been scarce over evolutionary time tend to use that resource efficiently (e.g. water in a desert environ).  Where the resource is plentiful, however, there is no evolutionary pressure towards a system that uses it efficiently, even in those cases in which the resource in question is non-renewable.  A somewhat artificial but instructive example is the yeasts in a barrel of sweet warm grape juice that consume the sugar in their environment quickly until they are all gone, or their waste product (i.e. alcohol) has built up to such a concentration that it kills them.

 
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