A real head-scratcher
On the attraction of Wordle, computers dreaming at night, and the aptitude test we need but haven't yet created
In the span of just a handful of months, Wordle went from one family's novelty game to a sensation so big it was purchased by the New York Times for some price over $1 million.
■ The rules of the game are exceptionally simple: Guess a five-letter word in no more than six tries. The game tells you whether you got a letter right (in the right place), right (in the wrong place), or altogether wrong. As is so often the case, the art is in the constraints: The solution will be one of about 2,500 words, the number of allowable tries is generally sufficient but not excessive, and there is only one game released per day.
■ It's a simple puzzle that offers reasonably good prospects of a reward from a very modest investment of time. And there are certain network effects, too: The more people who play and compare their results, the greater the "stickiness" of the activity. And thus, people keep coming back for the reward of solving simple puzzles and sharing the feeling of success with others.
■ For all of the various ways in which people try to achieve some level of self-understanding through interest quizzes, aptitude tests, and self-help resources, we tend to under-value the identification of each individual's preferred problem-solving/puzzle-solving type. Human minds are well-adapted to solving puzzles and piecing together solutions from limited information; that's why we identify familiar objects in clouds and see a Man in the Moon.
■ But not everyone enjoys solving the same sorts of puzzles. Some people are attracted to crosswords, while others like to assemble jigsaw puzzles. Some find satisfaction from detangling knotted jewelry, and others like to paint by numbers. If we choose to define a "puzzle" as any kind of activity that requires creative mental engagement to find a solution, then we find that many people have high tolerances for puzzle-like activities and even careers (like engineering, auditing, and detective work).
■ The more we succeed at offloading many of our routine tasks to computers and various forms of automation, the more important it will become for individuals to uncover the kinds of puzzle-like problems (in the broadest sense of the word) that give them satisfaction. Computers can be excellent at relieving humans of decision-making under conditions where rules are easy to apply, which is why we're already able to let some cars drive themselves autonomously.
■ Until the elusive "general" form of artificial intelligence arrives -- if, indeed, it ever comes -- human beings will not only remain the best resources for solving open-ended, puzzle-like problems, but those problems will also become increasingly important to ensuring that people can find psychological satisfaction.
■ Even the most ordinary of humans are imbued with phenomenal mental capacity, as illustrated every night as billions of people experience vivid, complex, and long-lasting dreams -- the generation of which would be a challenging problem for digital computers. Putting that capacity to work in problem-solving activities is important not only to making general human progress, but to giving individuals the satisfaction of solving puzzles along the way.
■ Right alongside the ASVAB and the Myers-Briggs and the MAPP, we would do well to find a test to help individuals uncover which types of problems (that is, puzzles) they will find the most consistent satisfaction in trying to solve -- mechanical or mathematical, open-ended or closed, short-form or multi-decadal, cosmic or small enough to fit on a wrist.
■ The future is bound to become massively more complex than the reality we inhabit today, yet many of the routine decisions that occupy our time and thoughts now are likely to be offloaded to machinery of one sort or another, just as household tools like washing machines and microwaves have taken some domestic endeavors almost entirely off our minds altogether. More of those "dumb" decisions that tax our mental energy and deplete our decision-making capacities are destined to go away. That's good, because in the aggregate, they leave too many people with decision fatigue.
■ But some of the problems that are left over are bound to require matching problems with the right kinds of problem-solvers who will find deep satisfaction from untangling the metaphorical knots. It would serve civilization well to try to drill deeper into helping us sort ourselves accordingly.