The bicycle inventor’s dilemma

I saw someone operate an ultrasound machine today, and was struck by the fact that there exists a class of machines that require particular skill to operate. For example, a bicycle. How do these machines get invented? Does the inventor have to also be the first skilled person who demonstrates the machine? How does the inventor, who, starting off as a rookie, even know whether the machine operation falls within the realm of the humanly possible?

That’s a lot of questions; I’ll start off with the bicycle, about which Wikipedia has a fairly detailed article. Apparently, the first bicycle was foot-driven like the Flintstones’ car; it was only many decades later that the crank and pedal were added, causing a significant increase in the difficulty of driving it.

This evolutionary path provides insight on the parallel roles of the inventor and the expert user in the development of the bicycle; the first bicycle, which its inventor ‘drove’ for eight miles in one hour, posed no challenge to the user because his feet were always on the ground. Therefore, there was hardly the need for an expert user for the routine use of the cycle. However, it is likely that over a period of time, daredevils and show-offs raised their feet from the ground for extended periods of time, especially going downhill; these were the expert users who eventually figured out, after much practice, that it was possible to drive a cycle without necessarily having your feet stay in contact with the ground. It was probably only at this time that manufacturer-inventors caught on to the possibility that better bicycles could be designed if a prospective bicycle user was ‘skilled’, i.e. he could be trained to drive a cycle, instead of being able to do so from the word go.

This is also true for specialized devices. For example, I have been involved in the last few weeks in discussions about welding simulators, mostly in the context of skill development of welders for the Indian job market. I came to know something amazing: there is a ‘sliding scale’ of skill in the welding business, and at the top end, the expert welders get paid Rs 4 lakhs per month to weld. They do such tasks as welding inside nuclear reactors and submarines and tasks that require incredibly high precision. And they get paid a correspondingly incredible salary – the CEO of Infosys earns only twice that amount – for nothing more than a pair of steady hands.

No one would have thought of inventing welding if its first use had required that much of skill. This is the vicious cycle: the inventor does not have steady hands (nor does he need to); the ‘expert user’ does not even have an engineering degree (nor does he need to); yet, both the invention and the expert are needed to complete the solution.

It would take an incredible visionary of an inventor to not only come up with an invention, but to also foresee the level of expertise that would develop in a user of the invention.

I’ve wondered how game designers overcome this problem, and if any of my readers are game developers, perhaps you can enlighten me. At the hardest and highest level of a game, chances are that it is way too difficult for the game designers to ever finish. How do they know that there exists the expert player who will be able to finish that level? How do they know they have not made it too difficult, not being able to go anywhere near that level themselves?

It’s a very intriguing question. I have no idea what the answer is.


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