What Computers Aren't


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30/Dec/2012

Computers Aren't: Electronic Brains, Clever, Perfect, Slaves, Magic, or Valuable.

You'll find lots of people who will tell you what computers are. They'll go on at great length, saying all sorts of wonderful things, dazzling with their amazing possibilities. But, sometimes, it's more worthwhile thinking about what things aren't.

Computers aren't 'Electronic Brains'. This is a popular but quite misleading, maybe even dangerous, way of thinking about computers. Yes, they use electronics, electrons tortured to move very short distances at amazing speed. But, they are not brains.

Yes, brains are the parts of the bodies of living things that let them process information. But, the information and the reasons that it's processed are different from computers. Living creatures need to process what they sense so that they survive and prosper; they don't care about precise accuracy, they care about effectiveness. Living creatures can't afford to be patient, 'waiting for input', they must make effective use of their time and other resources.

Computers aren't 'Clever'. They aren't even stupid, unless it is a sort of 'stupid' so extreme it's hard to believe in. Lots of cleverness goes into making computers, but 'clever' is something living things are, and it can mean something like 'surprisingly effective', and 'flexible thinking'. Computers aren't flexible, and, they don't think.

Modern computers are made-up of transistors, early ones were made of electronic valves, and the earliest were mechanical, made of things like (reed) relays and punched paper cards. What makes computers different from other machines is that they can follow instructions, a 'programme' (program). This can both be changed, and make very simple decisions, which choose which part of the program to use next.

Computers aren't 'Perfect'. They are not infallible. As machines, they can physically break, and while most breaks are obvious, as they stop working, some are more subtle. They rely on their programs being both correct and able to deal with the right sort of problems, even the exceptional cases. If these exceptions are rare enough it's very likely that the program will be incomplete, and, if the world changes, and so the problem, it's very difficult to make sure the program stays in step with these changes.

The big problem is that computers can't learn. Yes, they can store information, 'memory', but even the best of 'learning' programs can only deal with a small problem area, like playing chess, or recognising speech, and, that is after decades of effort. Learning in a general way, figuring out how to solve new problems, is something computers can't do, even after more than half a century of attempts to get them to do so.

Computers aren't 'Slaves'. A slave could be trusted not do to anything which threatened their survival. A computer doesn't even have the survival instincts of an amoeba. Most slaves were careful not to act against their owner's interests. A computer can't understand that it has an owner, never mind that they might have interests that need to be taken into consideration.

All a computer can do is respond in a programmed way. A computer is far more like an office, with a totally rigid set of office procedures. If the office procedures have been carefully enough put together then the computer may be able to do a great deal of what you want. Or, you may be able to learn and adapt to work effectively with it. But, if your needs change enough you will find the limits on those procedures.

Computers aren't 'Magic'. They rely on doing really simple things so quickly it's difficult to imagine. They are called 'computers', which was originally a name for people who did sums and calculations for a living, because that is all they can do. Generations of people have worked on the programs for computers, and the 'magic' is that you can't see the details of that work, the effort that's been put in; there isn't fine brushwork or visible elegance of design.

Treating a computer like a (rather stupid) person who can occasionally do things that seem magical is unwise and risky. Treating what they do as the will of the gods... Unless what a computer does for you is practical and useful it's a waste of your time, energy and the space it takes up. If it doesn't work right then you need to insist on knowing why, and what's needed to fix it.

Computer's aren't 'Valuable'. Until the 1970s you needed a white coat and a degree to use a computer. And, a few million dollars if you wanted to own one (inflation is about fifty-times between 1960s and 2012). Now they are practically given away in cereal packets. An educational computer is twenty-five US dollars. The computer isn't valuable, what's valuable is the time and energy you've got tied-up in it.

A computer is only as useful as what it can do for you. With falling prices, what's really valuable is your information, and what you want doing with it. That's what needs protecting, as, in a lot of ways that information is how you go about living your life.

(c) ROMsys Ltd, December 2012, permission given to use for non-profit making purposes

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