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Polycentric Control: Getting Off the Ground

Samuel Pierpont Langley was a preeminent scientist/engineer of his time. In 1903, the nation's eyes were on his latest efforts to solve the problem of human powered flight. He had done the calculations, had tested his aerodrome models and was finally ready to scale up the models and put his solution to the ultimate test. On October 7th his assistant climbed on to the aerodrome and was launched over the Potomac River - and immediately crashed into the river. A second attempt on December 8th had the same result. Langley's failure led many to conclude that the solution to human powered flight would not be realized in their lifetimes. Yet, nine days later, two unknown brothers from Dayton, OH made the first human powered flight at Kitty Hawk. 

How was the Wright Brother's approach different than Langley's? What was the key to their success? One of the first questions that the Wright's asked was how would an airplane be controlled. And when they inquired to the Smithsonian about prior work on control they were surprised to learn that nothing had been done. The key to their success was the discovery that the problem of steering an aircraft was different than steering a boat. A simple rudder wouldn't do. To turn an aircraft required banking it. Until the Wrights (who built bicycles and carefully observed birds) no one could imagine that a pilot would need to be able to bank the aircraft to achieve a coordinated turn. So, the Wright's started with the question of how to put control into the hands of smart human's. They tested their control system using kites and gliders and spent hours to become skilled at using the controls before adding an engine. 

For Langley - the problem was to design a flying machine. But for the Wrights - the problem was to design a joint cognitive system - that included the pilot as a critical component of the system. 

Today, the pressing challenge is not how to pilot a single aircraft, but how to manage a complex, distributed multi-layered network (e.g., an international business conglomerate, a complex civil air space, a distributed all-domain military organization). This has been described as a polycentric control problem (e.g., Ostrum, 1999; Woods & Branlat, 2010). 

Many people are attempting to engineer solutions to this polycentric control problem utilizing the latest advancements in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and natural language processing. The power of these technologies is quite amazing and the engineering is advancing at a remarkable rate. However, I worry that some do not fully  appreciate the lesson of Langley and the Wrights.

They are framing the problem around the technologies and forgetting that ultimate success depends on the quality of the joint cognitive system.

For example, there seems to be an implicit belief among some that the technology will eliminate the fog and friction associated with managing a complex, distributed organization. Others seem to believe that the technology will allow control to be centralized into the hands of a single person (i.e., pilot or commander).

However, the works of Ostrum and others illustrate that polycentric control problems demand that we let go of the illusion of an omnipotent, centralized controller. Polycentric control problems require harnessing the power of a network of people and technologies with diverse experiences and a variety of skills. Further, it involves creating the conditions for these diverse components to self-organize around common functional objectives, to make dynamic trade-offs among conflicting values, and to resiliently adapt to unanticipated disturbances. 

Note that, within the joint cognitive systems framework, the Wrights did amazing research on the design of wings and propellers, discovering errors in previous models of lift. So, advancing the technology is an important component of the solution. But advancing the technology is NOT enough! Ultimately - success depends on the ability of people to engage with the technology and steer the technology in the right direction. The technology is only part of the system being engineered. Those who treat the people as an afterthought will find themselves designing systems that are unstable and that don't get far off the ground before crashing into the river of complexity. 

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