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Jack Smith

A Byte Out of the Computer Argument

July 11, 1988|Jack Smith

My doubt that computers will ever equal the reach of human imagination is ridiculed by several of my more sophisticated readers.

I am aware that computers have already achieved some measure of what their masters call artificial intelligence, and that this capacity will surely expand in the future.

At the robot exhibit at the California Museum of Science and Industry I saw computers (robots) that understand English, talk, work, compose music, paint pictures and play games.

To despise the accomplishments of this amazing machine, and to doubt its ultimate possibilities, would be foolish indeed. I simply do not think that it can be made to have emotions or to express them, to laugh or cry or write "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways."

Guy Johnson of Lakewood argues that the brain is a small though complicated "physical device," and is "definitely not unfathomable in its complexity." He envisions a manufactured device that has the same potential physically as the brain. "At that point it is simply a matter of software development to utilize that potential. Therefore, it is conceivable that computers in some form will have at least the same capability as human brains either to understand language or even be creative."

Who am I to doubt it? Fifty years ago I would have doubted the moon walk;

I would have doubted nuclear fission; I would have doubted the computer itself.

However, a Museum of Science and Industry press release concedes that "at the present state of the art, designers estimate that it would take a 100-story building the size of Texas to house a computer with the intelligence of the average three-pound human brain."

Well, why not try it? Certainly we can spare Texas.

On the other hand, Judith Lautner of San Luis Obispo notes that humans rely on "lateral thinking," a thought process that grabs bits and pieces from remote corners of the brain, with no obvious connection. "Computers can't do that. They will never be able to do that."

Charles Kish of Culver City says he regards his computer as feminine and calls her Millie. "Millie can, like many women I know, be insufferably annoying at times. If I don't do something the way she likes, she refuses to perform. The difficulty I face is that she is always right. I hate that in her (and in other women). I suspect that I need her more than she needs me."

I regard my computer as sexless. I have no need to further complicate my life by having a second female in the house. It is true that I must perform exactly as it wants me to, or it balks. No endearments, no wheedling, no promises avail.

I admit, though, that sometimes my wife seems to exert an evil power over the thing. The other day I was two-thirds finished writing a difficult magazine article. Our electric range had gone out, and my wife chose that moment to go outside and flip the circuit breakers. My screen flashed and died. My article was lost.

Perhaps the future of computers will always be limited, not by their own potential, but by the incapacity of human beings to use them. Perhaps we will begin to lose the very skills that computers master.

Stan Howell of Yucaipa says that, as a senior citizen, he has 15% discount cards for several fast-food restaurants. He and his wife ate in one recently, and when he presented his card with the bill, the cashier didn't know how to deduct 15%. She said her computer didn't have a discount key. She called the manager. He didn't know how to deduct 15% either. Finally, Howell had to deduct the 15% himself, and show them, step by step, how he had done it. Since then he has never used his discount card.

Jon Covey says he is surprised that I should doubt that computers will ever be able to read and write in any imaginative or creative way, "especially when you find it so easy to smirk at creationists and creationism. After all, if our origin was from inanimate, insensate matter that organized itself through an improbable, but fortuitous, series of events over much time, why could we not with logic, intelligence, knowledge, and creativity, build such a computer?"

Who knows? Give us a couple of hundred million years; maybe we can.

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