2018-05-07

Computers and honesty

In today's Quote Investigator, they investigate a quote from Isaac Asimov which shows up from time to time.

Part of the inhumanity of the computer is that once it is competently programmed and working smoothly—it is completely honest.

I remembered this quote from my time in computer science (CS) courses in the late 1980's as something that non CS people would bring up, and CS people would laugh and laugh about.

Isaac Asimov was a 20th century author who wrote about almost everything at one point or another. While best known as a science fiction writer, he wrote many popular science books which were most of the literature I read from the local South Carolina library when I was in elementary school. Some of his most famous science fiction were around robots who were programmed to work according to three laws with the stories revolving around how the laws broke down in some way or another in what people expected them to do.

Modern computers are incredibly complex systems, and the first thing you learn in any complex analysis is that they are never going to run smoothly enough that complete honesty will happen. The system may think it is being honest, but at some point, somewhere 1+1 =1 happened (or 1+1=0 or 1+1=3) . In fact a large amount of electrical engineering in chip design, BIOS writing, and other low level sorcery is cleaning that up. Maybe the chip redoes the calculation a couple of times, maybe there are just low bits you never use to clean up that electrical signal loss, or some other trick of the trade. However at some point, those incantations will fail and the little bit of Maxwell's demon leaks out somewhere.

Even when you have a smooth enough working system, the fact that the programmer is never competent enough is a completely different problem. We all have our off days, we all don't see all the ways a piece of code might get used where it does mostly what you want.. but not all. [Or we do see it, pop open the cheap Scotch and try to desperately to forget. ]

Even not counting the complex system problems, there are many times when we find either our programming or our computer will prove both Asimov and Charles Babbage wrong:

On two occasions I have been asked, — "Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?" In one case a member of the Upper, and in the other a member of the Lower, House put this question. I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.

I expect that the programmers for Alexa, Cortana, Siri, and Gooda (google voice needs a name and I am horrible with names) are having to deal with this daily. A person may ask a question which literally means one thing, but has a different contextual common meaning. Giving the literal answer would not be lying, but the person asking feels the computer did. Giving the contextually correct answer has the computer lying, but the person getting the 'honest' answer they expected. [And somewhere in England, they have hooked up Babbages spinning casket to a electrical motor to produce free electricity.]

In the end, I wonder if all this means we need to re-evaluate the 'humanity' of modern computers (or at least the definition of 'humanity' as posited by Asimov nearly 40 years ago 😉.)

From the quote investigator page:

  1. 1981, Change! Seventy-One Glimpses of the Future by Isaac Asimov, Chapter 6: Who Needs Money?, Start Page 15, Quote Page 17, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans) 
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