Monday, August 13, 2007

Does Not Compute

About 10 years ago in Issaquah, Wash., a man was coaxed out of his home by
a police SWAT team after he pulled a gun and shot his personal computer.

The computer, in a home office on the second floor of a townhouse, had
four bullet holes in the hard drive and one in the monitor.

Police evacuated the complex, contacted the 43-year old man by telephone
and got him to come out. He was taken to a hospital for a mental evaluation.

I'm betting that not only was he found to be perfectly sane, but that if
he went to trial, he was judged to be not guilty.

Who among us would have convicted him?

I mention this because my home computer went ballistic recently, behaving
like some petulant child who refuses to do as he is told.

After frank and open discussions with service representatives from
Microsoft, American Online, Charter Communications and Hewlett Packard, all
of whom apparently have a hand in the seamless operation of my computer, the
damn thing still wouldn't work. Had I been armed, I might have joined my
comrade in arms in Issaquah.

But I took a less violent route. I called a computer repair person. Some
40 hours and $500 later, my machine works again. Sort of. It functions but
not quite the same as it did before, sort of like talking to someone who has
recently had a lobotomy. Or like Hal, post "2001: A Space Odyssey."

More disturbing was the fact that the repairman said he found 49 viruses
in my computer. He explained that many of these viruses are generated by
repair people themselves as a way to keep business booming.

Just another reason to love your computer.

It could have been worse. I could have been the guy sitting at the screen
when more than 20,000 international passengers were stranded for hours at Los
Angeles International Airport over the weekend.

It seems a malfunctioning computer system prevented U.S. officials from
processing the travelers' entry into the country.
The resulting chaos did two things: (1) it tied up the airport in knots
and (2) reminded us how utterly dependent we are on technology and how
helpless we are when it fails.

When my home computer was down, I lost access to e-mails and other data I
rely upon in my work and in the conduct of my personal life. I felt isolated.
I also discovered how much I use my computer for entertainment. Surfing
the net is a lot more enjoyable than watching sitcom reruns.

These are minor irritations compared to being herded like cattle at LAX
for hours on end.

But technology run amok is a migraine for all of us these days. Consider:

A computer with the job of issuing vehicular citations goofed and sent
notices to 41,000 residents of Paris, France informing them that they were
charged with murder, prostitution and illegal sale of drugs.

As the calendar changed to the year 2000, items rented from a large video
rental chain prior to January 1st, 2000 and returned after January 1st were
reportedly marked for late fees of $91,250, as though the items were 100
years overdue.

The 2003 North America blackout was triggered by a local outage that went
undetected due to a glitch in the monitoring software.

On June 3, 1980, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD)
reported that the U.S. was under missile attack due to a computer glitch.

While scientists won't promise that someday they'll produce a mistake
proof, anxiety free computer, they are at least tackling the issue.

Within the next decade, computers will be able to feel anguish and adjust
to soothe the moods of irate users.

Machines with emotional intelligence will be built within the next five to
10 years, researchers told a symposium sponsored by the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology Media Lab and reported by CNN. The key to
successfully integrating affective computing into daily life is to allow
users to maintain control over their computers rather than vice versa, said
Rosalind Picard, an associate professor at the Media Lab.

Affective computing eventually will be used to make computers respond to
human interaction, making it less frustrating, and perhaps easier, to use
computers, researchers said.

More importantly, warm and caring personal computers may prevent a user
from unloading his Smith & Wesson into the hard drive.

And that's progress.

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