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December 26, 2012

Computers are not magic

NORMAN — We often attribute human characteristics to computers, a concept known as anthropomorphism. We say that computers “think,” that they “know” things, and that they have “memories.” We give computers “instructions” and “commands.” It’s an easy, yet strange, way of describing how a computer “behaves,” a way that communicates well in our culture. Strange, in that, what other home device do we treat as if it had a real brain?

In truth, computers are nothing more than dumb boxes filled with imperfect electronic circuits. Like a high-tech version of a mechanic’s toolkit, a computer is nothing more than an electromechanical set of tools designed to help you complete a specific task; a fancy version of an abacus or slide ruler. Computers certainly can’t think; they can’t think any farther than you can throw my car.

Computers also are not “magic.” Forget all of that nonsense that you’ve seen on TV and in Hollywood movies. Forget Hal in “2001, A Space Odyssey.” Forget Commander Data on Star Trek. Despite impressive advances in technology, voice recognition and artificial intelligence, computers cannot read your mind. They cannot figure out what it is that you want. They can’t even understand what you say. Computers can only do what they’ve been ordered to do, to provide predetermined responses to predetermined commands.

As the saying goes, “Garbage in, garbage out.” Tell a computer to do something stupid, even if you don’t know that’s what you have done, and it will comply. It’s no different than if you “tell” your car to do something stupid. So, you want to hear the car’s starter run while the engine is already running? Simply turn the key forward and issue that bad “command.” Grind, squeal, grind, ouch!

I once had the opportunity learn from OU professor Dr. David Miller of Norman’s KISS Institute for Practical Robotics (www.kipr.org). As a mentor for a group of school kids that formed a Botball team (www.botball.org), I got to take Dr. Miller’s crash course in robotics and artificial intelligence. Dr. Miller is a true genius, a “rocket scientist,” having worked with NASA on the robots that roamed the surface of Mars, AKA the Mars Rovers. He is an expert in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), and the machines that make AI happen: computers.

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