January 2003 | Commentary | Checking In

Descartes Was Wrong ... and Right

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Descartes divided our world into two distinct parts—"extended things," things that are real, existing in the physical world and "thinking things," thoughts and memories.

Descartes was wrong. That's what New York scientist Timothy Tully says and he is out to prove it. How? By using molecular biology to break down thoughts into physical components. He plans to replicate the thought process and develop a pill making your memory razor sharp all the time.

That kind of pill would come in handy in logistics. You could take one and remember exactly what liner, what port, which warehouse in which city the critical parts are located to put out the fire in your best customer's hair. But that is not Tully's aim. He is not a logistician, he's a scientist.

Until now most scientists and philosophers sided with Descartes. Thoughts and memories are not part of the "real world," they believe. But Tully says thoughts are just electrical impulses traveling across neural networks delivering information. To Tully, the electrical nature of this biological process means that modern biology can manipulate, amplify, improve, even restore thoughts. Tully even created thousands of fruit flies with photographic memories as proof that thoughts are part of the real world.

If Tully is right then it may be that, metaphorically speaking, neural networks are only smaller biological versions of computer tendrils branching out across the world controlling the networks and systems that govern global supply chains, particularly demand-driven logistics networks.

These networks operate like your body does. Your autonomous nervous system carries impulses from the lungs calling for more air or from the digestive track calling for more food. Synapses fire "send" messages, triggering an automatic response to satisfy that demand impulse. In logistics, demand impulses fired by checkout scanners or business rules algorithms measure inventory levels, then travel down EDI/web neural networks to a command center and set in motion the process to satisfy that demand or need.

The Stuff That Dreams are Made of

This sounds like a closed-loop, self-regulating, demand-driven world-class SCM operation. One level of the supply chain process is automatic, and replenishing messages are sent without human intervention. That level of supply/demand chain autonomy was unimaginable just a few short years ago. But today, world-class logistics networks in many companies act just that way. How far we have come. The stuff that dreams are made of.

Tully and others like him think all can be distilled down to technology. They think even the functions of our brain are just machine actions that can be programmed and controlled. In logistics, prior to the dot.com explosion, many thought that technology could do it all.

But lest we place too much import on computer pathways and technology, let's acknowledge the very important biological component in the process—you. Those same signals moving across the web or down EDI conduits also travel across a biological network, the neural one between your ears.

A level of autonomy in a logistics system is fine when things don't change much or change within foreseen and planned for parameters. But what about the unforeseen and unplanned for—especially when realtime events, or those outside any plannable set of business rules, overtake demand change signals? Port lockout, web lockup, security delays, strikes, a key supplier's bankruptcy. Try to algorithm your way out of that on the fly.

In all these cases, there is no charted course of action, neural or otherwise. There is no real solution yet. There is nothing that can be manipulated by molecular biology. No thought, no idea exists yet. One has to be created.

Only the human mind has the ability to improvise complex solutions to unexpected changes and unforeseen problems. Only the human mind can bring disparate facts and concerns together, draw on experience, sometimes luck, work with your team (whether near at hand or across the world) to create a new solution to deal with the unexpected. It's what you do every day as you master the demands of your customers and your customers customers.

To my mind that process—creating a new solution where one did not exist before—means Descartes was right and Descartes was wrong. Tully is right and Tully is wrong. You can't program something that doesn't exist; supply chain excellence takes a blend of technology and thought.

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