Like Frankenstein, Computers are Strong, But Not Smart

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computers become aliveIn the comedic movie Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks cleverly satirizes the classic Frankenstein story.  For me, his most poignant comment on the topic of creating life was not can we do it, but should we do it. His characters were buffoons with hardly the sense to be responsible with their creation. It’s a brilliant movie, largely because it’s so cleverly observant. Almost 50 years later, we are on the verge of the very same idea. But instead of re-animating dead people, we are animating machines.  As computers become more powerful, more sophisticated, and more interactive, it’s pretty easy to think of your computer as a unique being, not unlike Frankenstein’s monster.

Instead of mad engineers and scientists, we have computer engineers and scientists.

Computer engineers make the body parts — hard drives, screens, CPUs.  Computer scientists create the “mind” of the computer — the operating system (fondly known as the OS).  The OS is how we interact with the computer — it dictates the colors, fonts, and navigation around the world of the computer. It even controls the programs you use. It’s kind of the motherlode of computer programs. The big cheese. Nothing happens on the computer unless the OS gives it the go ahead.

But as the saying goes, “It’s not what you have. It’s how you use it.”

This is especially true of computers. You can have the biggest hard drive and fastest processor, but if the operating system is hard to use, then the computer might as well be a paper weight.

Paperweight when computers go bad

As you might imagine, different people have different ideas of what an OS should be.  Right now, you can find three major OSs on home computers – Windows, Mac, and Linux. And we also have four mobile devices OS creators: Android, Windows Phone, iOS, and Blackberry.  When buying a computer or mobile device, operating system choice is the biggest decision. In fact, when you are comparing a PC to a Mac, like I did recently in Which Is Really Better: Mac or PC? , you are really making a choice about the operating system that governs the computer.  After all, the hardware is basically the same on all computers.  The differences are apparent in how the OS uses these parts. Just like two people can have the same body parts but vastly different skills, such is true of computers and operating systems. A major difference is that our human world has over 5 billion unique minds. The computer world has less than 10. But,that will definitely change.

Before long, you will be able to modify your OS to suit your needs. As these modifications grow, the OS will start to mutate enough to be markedly different than the original. Not unlike children who start out like acting like their parents but mature into a differentiated individual.

We have some first hand experience with this already. Consider the iPhone’s voice command personality, known as Siri.  The more you talk to Siri, the more she understands your speech patterns and your most common commands. If someone else picks up your phone, they won’t be able to talk with Siri as easily as you.  And other manufactures have interactive assistants in their OS as well. Android has one called Google Now, and Windows Phone has Cortana. Amazon has even announced a home based Siri-like gadget called Echo. Echo can turn on music, search the Web, find movies, and more, all using conversational voice commands.

Perhaps without realizing it, we are giving a lot of responsibility to these computer companies.  They stand poised to completely redefine how we live our lives and interact with our technology and society. Will the computer scientists at Google, Microsoft. Apple and other companies be buffoons like the characters in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein?  Or will they get it right?

Is the human race responsible enough to give our computers a “mind”  that will actually improve our lives?  Time will tell.  In the meantime, I just hope that Siri stops embarrassing me with errant text messages.

The other day Siri texted my wife, “Homey, please get off the babysitter?”

Bad Siri

Really Siri? If that’s the best you can do then chalk one of for Mel Brooks. Maybe he can’t write an OS, but at least when he’s poking fun at humans he lets us in on the joke.

Image credit: Jonathan Grossman

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