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Your computer can't think for you

Ventura County Star Top Stories - November 22, 2014 - 5:30pm

Using a computer can trash a person's common sense. Turn it on and turn off your brain.

Instead of doing any thinking ourselves we sometimes shift that job over to the computer. After all we say, it's a thinking machine. The trouble with that is the thinking part. A computer calculates. It doesn't reason.

When a person stops thinking and relies on the computer, all sorts of ugly things can happen. And it's not only computers that let us down; all our little computerized devices have that potential too.

I'll be glad to serve as the bad example on this one. Not long ago I was in Maine. I had never been in the state, so my navigation skills are nonexistent. But, hey, no problem. I asked my iPhone to do the navigation needed to travel from the airport to the cabin I'd rented. I entered the name of the town and the address and sure enough that weird little voice from the iPhone was soon telling me where to turn. There was no need to squint at a map while driving. I let the iPhone do the thinking for me.

Despite the fact that some of the turns didn't make sense to me, I faithfully obeyed that voice and was there in no time. As I pulled into the driveway that the iPhone insisted was home, things didn't look right. There was an aging barn, some animals, a few tractors and a woman and her son in the yard. It was a working farm, not a rental cabin. I rolled down the window and asked if I was in Winter Harbor. Forget about being at the street wrong address, I was in the wrong part of the state.

"Oh that's a long way away, I can't remember how far. I haven't been there in years," the woman said. "You are really lost," she said with what seemed like joy.

I wish I could tell you what I did wrong when I programmed the address into the iPhone. Maybe my phone simply took leave of its senses. Who knows? All I was sure of at that moment was that I needed to find an old fashioned paper map. My cabin was in the opposite direction.

In my case that was no disaster. I got to see a lot of new scenery as I drove to my rented cabin using a map and the correct route. I even happened across a nice roadside stand where I picked up live lobsters for the grand total of $15 for the two.

But my reliance on the iPhone got me thinking. I remembered a comment made to me years ago by an elderly professor of engineering. He was complaining about a side effect of the fact that engineering students no longer used a slide rule and relied on a pocket calculator or a PC instead.

The slide rule doesn't tell you where the decimal point ought to go. So if the answer is 1.3 you have to know whether that stands for 1.3 billion, or 1,300. Since the answer is relative, engineers had to know the ballpark answer to make use of the slide rule's result. So they developed the ability to recognize crazy answers. Not so with a calculator, you get an exact answer. If that answer is wrong, it's impossible to catch the error without an innate ability to know the answer just doesn't make sense.

It's the same deal now if you rely on a computer alone — without throwing in some common sense — as you ask for its help to figure out medical symptoms, to decide if you can afford that new house, or if you are searching the Web for a way to fix some computer problem. You'll get plenty of answers but some of them will be wrong. If you disengage your brain during those searches the consequences can be a lot more serious than adding an hour or so to your drive.

Someone once said that common sense is an uncommon virtue. I'm not sure that's completely right. Most people — if they stop and think a bit — are pretty good at separating nonsense from the reality of things. It's just that many of us have given up the habit in this computer age.

Let me show you what I mean. If some stranger walked up to you in the mall and asked you to give him your Social Security number you'd laugh at him. But many people eagerly respond when they receive an email that claims to be from their bank asking for their user name and password. We trust what we see on the computer beyond all that is reasonable.

So that's today's sermon. You don't need to know a hard disk from a slipped disk to take heed and change your ways. All it takes is the realization that you're pretty smart — you've navigated your way through life just fine using your own judgment. When something happens online that doesn't pass the good sense rule then listen to your own common sense.

Use the computer to get help and find information. But when you do make sure you keep that super computer between your own ears engaged.

Bill Husted writes about technology. Contact him at tecbud@bellsouth.net.

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