Melodee Wants to Know — Are You FLOPping Around?


Computers have become entrenched in our society. Pretty much everything we use and touch has a computer involved. Even the cup of coffee or tea you’re drinking right now depends on computers to grow, harvest, transport, market, and sell the product or some part of it relies on a computer at one or more stages.

Some computers are pretty simpleminded, like the one that controls your watch. Others, like the ones discussed in the following article are staggering brilliant…

Anyone old enough to remember—or interested enough to have studied—the early days of the space program will know that today’s $1 school calculators have more computational power than the computers used by NASA to get to the moon. There is no doubt that computers have gotten more powerful, smaller, faster, and easier to use as time has passed.

But let’s look at a very specific area of computer use…

Every author knows computers are a big part of our lives. We use a computer to access the Internet for research. We send and receive E-Mail for a myriad of reasons related to our profession. And we, of course, write our stories on a computer.

But it wasn’t always so. I’ve been around long enough that I have actually written entire books on a typewriter (at least it was an IBM Selectric!) and mailed off the hardcopy to publishers. The first computer I used to fully write a book was an Atari 1200 XL using a word processor called Paper Clip. It even had spell checking! I still have the computer and all of the peripherals and software, and it still works.

Honestly, I’m not sure I could go back to the Good Old Days. I’m pretty sure that I don’t want to. But all of this does lead to a few questions…

First of all, is the pervasiveness of computers adding to the “dumbing down” of society? Do we rely too much of computers to think for us and solve our problems? Personally, I think this is a yes and no deal. By and large, I think not. As the above article discusses, we use super computers to solve complex and important problems. The machines do this not by being smarter than we are, but simply by virtue of being able to do a huge number of calculations in a short time and not making what one of my math professors called “Idiot Mistakes”…like dividing four by two and coming up with one. The computers aren’t smarter than us…just faster.

Second, what about that whole smart thing? Artificial intelligence has been around for a long time, but we’re reaching the point now where the computers are fast enough and have enough memory that AI can actually work. One definition of if a computer is actually intelligent or not is if it can carry on a conversation with a human and the human not know they are talking to a computer. Those of us who write science fiction often deal with this idea. One thing that we often do is to give the computer some little idiosyncrasies to make it clear that the humans (or other species) in the story are still smarter than the computer. We like to feel superior. But—in reality—will that always be the case? Will we always be smarter than the machines we build? I’m not so sure of that.

And this leads to the concepts of future history…how big of a part will computers play in our future, and will that part be one leading to a utopian or dystopian world? Both side of that coin have been played out in literature many times. I see a little of both.

What say you?

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1 comment

    • on July 28, 2013 at 11:40

    I think unless there is a total electronic meltdown that sans a backdoor AI will become able to control humanity the way a charismatic dictator can do now only better and faster.

    I wasn’t quite as cynical and scared more easily when I was younger. One movie that scared me to death was The Forbin Project. The entire world became enslaved to a computer that was in a location impossible to destroy.

    I know that if you rely totally on computers you can miss obvious errors. Old age has claimed part of my math ability. If I use a calculator I can tell if the answer is wrong by looking at it. How is anyone who never worked out problems in his/her head going to know when a wrong button was pushed?

    How many people working cash registers learn how to make change unless they went to school before the register told them how much to give back? I used to go to a local coffee kiosk before I became addicted to Starbucks. One morning I got charged double the city sales tax. The computer was programmed for tax in another jurisdiction. I had to go to the city to straighten out of the mess. The company wouldn’t correct the error on its own.

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