Thursday, September 26, 2013

Underestimating The Challenge of Systems Integration

My girl, Megan Mcardle, an economics writer with an IT background, raises a few technical issues regarding the exchanges that will soon make it as easy to buy healthcare as it is to order a book on Amazon:
People tend to think that computers doing things they couldn’t do must be very smart and advanced, while computers doing things they can easily imagine -- like making a Travelocity-style website for health insurance -- must be basically pretty simple. After all, any clerk or insurance agent with the right security clearances could do basically what the exchanges were supposed to do, minus one shiny interface. So why would it take longer than three years? Startups build websites in a few months!
But as any developer will tell you, it’s more likely to be the opposite. Teaching a computer to calculate a ballistic trajectory, which is something that people have difficulty doing quickly, is pretty easy; that’s why NASA could launch the Apollo 13 missions with computers much less powerful than your laptop. But it’s really hard to teach a computer to recognize faces, which is something that you do instantly, hundreds of times a day, without thinking about it. Computers are incredibly specific -- every little thing has to be broken down for them just so. Moreover, when you’re trying to put different computers together, all those very specific instructions begin to clash. Suddenly you realize that one computer thinks that dogs are an example of “pets” and one computer thinks that dogs are an example of “animals” and how do you get them to talk about dogs without accidentally telling one computer that a crocodile is a pet?
As someone who has worked on a slew of failed integration projects over the last 25 years (with a few, small victories scattered here and there), this rings awfully familiar. I said before the election that the President deserves a chance to implement his signature piece of legislation. I hope he knows what he's doing.

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