An article in Nautilus by Tom Vanderbilt [Link] is about the intersection between optimization and human behavior. It is entitled “Unhappy Truckers and Other Algorithmic Problems” with the subtitle “Algorithms: Transportation optimization starts with math, but ends in understanding human behavior.” That pretty much says it all. The article is mostly about how optimization is used to direct human behavior, such as routing delivery schedules for truck delivery services (e.g., UPS), generating airline crew schedules, etc. What is “optimal” from a mathematical point of view is not always pleasant from a human point of view. Humans get burned out by efficiency.
When a [UPS] driver stops the van, he “has nine seconds to select a package and get out of there.” His tone suggested he was talking about a member of a bomb disposal unit.
Vanderbilt goes into an explanation of the TSP at length (see my last post) as well as Bill Cook’s and Warren Powell’s work. While I thought the article had an unfairly negative tone on the role of optimization in managing large-scale systems (optimization = trucker torture?), it correctly characterized the richness of real-world optimization problems. Specifically, Vanderbilt discusses the real-world constraints imposed by union rules and the challenges this brings to the optimization side. I liked this quote: “Trucks are simple; drivers are complicated.” In the end, this was a nice article about the challenges inherent in implementing optimization results in the real world.
Link to the full article here.