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Computers - Idiots Savant?

as our reliance on computers grows, are we losing the ability to make decisions? Are we no longer able to sense when an answer is wrong?

A few weeks ago, one of the phone companies unknowingly released a list of unlisted phone numbers to a telemarketing organization. The problem, of course, was a computer error. Seems the computer was looking at some X-rated site on the Internet, fantasizing over some hot RAM, and not paying attention.

Computers are now at fault for anything that goes wrong. They get little credit for doing things right, but that's the way it is for the lowest worker in the office. As is the case with humans, the computers are simply following orders given by their superiors. When all goes well, the boss gets the credit; when things go awry, the bad stuff rolls downhill.

Computers are getting smarter with each new release. As they do more, our expectations increase even faster. Before the advent of computers, you balanced your checkbook yourself. Even if you used a calculator you still had to know which numbers to write in which boxes, which ones to add, and what it meant if the bank said you had less money than you thought. People who use computers to keep track of their checks can't seem to get through this once-simple procedure without an instruction manual, on-line help, and an 800 number to call just in case.

As our reliance on computers grows, are we losing the ability to make decisions? Are we no longer able to sense when an answer is wrong?

A few years ago, a group of people was asked to take a math test. Each was given a calculator that had been reprogrammed to give false answers. Only a few people questioned the results, even though they were substantially different from the real answers.

A contractor I knew had elaborate ritual he would perform before telling his clients how much their house would cost. "Assuming an area of 2,500 square feet, cedar siding, a whirlpool bath..." he would mutter as he poked at the keys on his calculator. The clients stared in rapt attention, patiently waiting until he hit the equal key and announced "The house will cost $243,000." What they didn't see is that, just before he arrived at the total, he cleared all of the numbers and entered the price he had decided on some time ago. When he turned the calculator around, they could see the figure he stated; since it came from the calculator, they usually accepted it without question.

Computers are valuable tools that can save a lot of time and quickly answer many questions. But, unless we understand the problem we are trying to solve, and have some reasonable expectation of the result, we remain easy targets for our daydreaming computers.

1998 Sheldon Wolfe, RA, CSI, CCS, CCCA, 
on the web at 
October 1998

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