June 27, 2003
According to the film "2001", by now we should have a computer that’s so smart it can hold a conversation, appraise drawings, and kill at least four people, either by unplugging the refrigerators where they’re being stored or by ripping out their air hose in their space suits. I think "2001" is the reason why no space suits are designed with air hoses that loop around behind the neck – although engineering may have something to do with that too. And I think it’s also the reason no one gets frozen when they go into space. Even now space travel is unnerving enough without having a "Best if used by" date printed on you.
Most glaring, though, is the lack of a computer like HAL 9000. Why haven’t we achieved this yet? Well, obviously approximating human thought has proven to be a lot more difficult than was assumed, but I’m afraid the technology revolution may soon come skidding to a halt because of something a computer programmer said to me the other day. Don’t get me wrong. I think most computer programmers are doing a wonderful yet thankless job writing programs and creating new technologies to make life more interesting for the rest of us – interesting like in the Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times", but then most times before computers were pretty interesting too, with the exception of the early 1950’s and the late Victorian period.
But I digress. The other day I asked a computer programmer a simple question, something like, "Why can’t I type zeroes into this spreadsheet cell?" And he replied, "Why would you want to do that? Ha ha ha ha." He walked away before I could come up with an appropriate response, such as, "Ah, now I know why you live alone." Luckily I don’t actually work with this guy – he just works for the company that designs some software I use, so therefore he’s immune from any criticism from someone so small and insignificant as one of his customers. Maybe the guy’s just a jerk, but what if this is a sign of things to come in the technology world? Imagine if you called up someone in a computer customer service department and got that answer. Imagine saying, "I can’t print something!" and getting the answer, "Why would you want to do that?" Even without the condescending laughter it’s annoying. What if this is a virus that’s spreading? "Help, my toilet won’t flush!" you say, and your plumber replies, "Why would you want to do that?" All human progress will come to a skidding halt.
I think this may be the reappearance of a mutant gene that first popped up on the plains of Africa tens of thousands of years ago. A hominid said, "Fire made when lightning hit tree, but must learn make fire without lightning to survive." Another hominid, wearing a badly woven toupee of wilted ferns and a couple of pieces of polished quartz over his eyes (they didn’t help him see better–he just thought they made him look smarter) said, "Why would you want to do that?" Then a big black rectangular box fell over on him and killed him.
Enjoy this week’s offerings.
Hello, and welcome to the mental health hotline…..
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