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Computers As Machines
The progression of the machine into all aspects of human life has continued unabated since the medieval watchmakers of Europe and the Renaissance study of science that followed Clocks . Whilst this change has been exceedingly rapid from a historical perspective, it can nevertheless be divided into distinct periods, though rather arbitrarily, by some criteria such as how people travelled or how information was transferred over long distances. However these periods are defined, their lengths have become increasingly shorter, with each new technological breakthrough now taking less than ten years to become accepted (recent examples include facsimile machines, video recorders and microwave ovens). One of the most recent, and hence most rapidly absorbed periods, has been that of the computer. The Age of Computing began with Charles Babbage in the late 19th century Babbage , grew in the calculating machines between the wars EarlyIBM , continued during the cryptanalysis efforts of World War II Turing,Bletchley and finally blossomed in the late 1970's with mass market applications in the developed countries (e.g. JapanSord ). Computers have gone through several `generations' of development in the last fifty years and their rate of change fits neatly to exponential curves Graphs , suggesting that the length of each generation will become shorter and shorter, decreasing until some unforeseen limit is reached. This pattern agrees with the more general decrease of length between other technological periods. The great strength of computers whether viewed as complex machines, or more abstractly as merely another type of tool, lies in their enormous flexibility. This flexibility is designed into a computer from the moment of its conception and accounts for much of the remarkable complexity that is inherent in each design. For this very reason, the uses of computers are now too many to ever consider listing exhaustively and so only a representative selection are considered below. Computers are now used to control any other machine that is subject to a varying environment, (e.g. washing machines, electric drills and car engines). Artificial environments such as hotels, offices and homes are maintained in pre-determined states of comfort by computers in the thermostats and lighting circuits. Within a high street shop or major business, every financial or stockkeeping transaction will be recorded and acknowledged using some form of computer. The small number of applications suggested above are so common to our experiences in developed countries that we rarely consider the element which permits them to function as a computer. The word `microprocessor' is used to refer to a `stand-alone' computer that operates within these sorts of applications. Microprocessors are chips at the heart of every computer, but without the ability to modify the way they are configured, only a tiny proportion of their flexibility is actually used. The word `computer' is now defined as machines with a microprocessor, a keyboard and a visual display unit (VDU), which permit modification by the user of the way that the microprocessor is used. Computers in this sense are used to handle more complex information than that with which microprocessors deal, for example, text, pictures and large amounts of information in databases. They are almost as widespread as the microprocessors described above, having displaced the typewriter as the standard writing tool in many offices and supplanted company books as the most reliably current form of accountancy information. In both these examples, a computer permits a larger amount of information to be stored and modified in a less time-consuming fashion than any other method used previously. Another less often considered application is that of communication. Telephone networks are today controlled almost entirely by computers, unseen by the customer, but actively involved in every telephone call phones . The linking of computers themselves by telephone and other networks has led people to communicate with each other by using the computer to both write the text (a word-processor) and to send it to its destination. This is known as electronic mail, or `email'. The all pervasive nature of the computer and its obvious benefits have not prevented a growing number of people who are vociferously concerned with the risks of widespread application of what is still an undeniably novel technology comp.risks,ACMrisks . Far from being reactionary prophets of doom, such people are often employed within the computer industry itself and yet have become wary of the pace of change. They are not opposed to the use of computers in appropriate environments, but worry deeply when critical areas of inherently dangerous operations are performed entirely by computers. Examples of such operations include correctly delivering small but regular doses of drugs into a human body and automatically correcting (and hence preventing) aerodynamic stability problems in an aircraft plane1,plane2 . Both operations are typical `risky' environments for a computer since they contain elements that are tedious (and therefore error-prone) for a human being to perform, yet require the human capacity to intervene rapidly when the unexpected occurs. Another instance of the application of computers to a problem actually increasing the risks attached is the gathering of statistical information about patients in a hospital. Whilst the overall information about standards of health care is relatively insensitive, the comparative costs of treatment by different physicians is obviously highly sensitive information. Restricting the `flow 'of such information is a complex and time-consuming business. Predictions for future developments in computing applications are notoriously difficult to cast with any accuracy, since the technology which is driving the developments changes so rapidly. Interestingly, much of what has been developed so far has its conceptual roots in science fiction stories of the late 1950's. Pocket televisions, lightning fast calculating machines and weapons of pin-point accuracy were all first considered in fanciful fiction. Whilst such a source of fruitful ideas has yet to be fully mined out, and indeed, Virtual Reality (see below) has been used extensively Neuromancer and others, many more concepts that are now appearing that have no fictional precursors. Some such future concepts, in which computers would be of vital importance, might be the performance of delicate surgical procedures by robot, controlled by a computer, guided in turn by a human surgeon; the control of the flow of traffic in a large city according to information gathered by remote sensors; prediction of earthquakes and national weather changes using large computers to simulate likely progressions from a known current state weather ; the development of cheap, fast and secure coding machines to permit guaranteed security in international communications; automatic translation from one language to another as quickly as the words are spoken; the simulation of new drugs' chemical reactions with the human body. These are a small fraction of the possible future applications of computers, taken from a recent prediction of likely developments JapanFuture . One current development which has relevance to all the above, is the concept known as `Virtual Reality' and is discussed further below. Virtual Reality Virtual Reality, or VR, is a concept that was first formally proposed in the early Seventies by Ted Nelson ComputerDreams , though this work appears to be in part a summary of the current thinking at that time. The basic idea is that human beings should design machines that can be operated in a manner that is as natural as possible, for the human beings, not the computers. For instance, the standard QWERTY keyboard is a moderately good instrument for entering exactly the letters which have been chosen to make up a word and hence to construct sentences. Human communication, however, is often most fluent in speech, and so a computer that could understand spoken words (preferably of all languages) and display them in a standard format such as printed characters, would be far easier to use, especially since the skills of speech exist from an early age, but typing has to be learnt, often painfully. All other human senses have similar analogies when considering their use with tools. Pictures are easier than words for us to digest quickly. A full range of sounds provides more useful information than beeps and bells do. It is easier to point at an item that we can see than to specify it by name. All of these ideas had to wait until the technology had advanced sufficiently to permit their implementation in an efficient manner, that is, both fast enough not to irritate the user and cheap enough for mass production. The `state of the art' in VR consists of the following. A pair of rather bulky goggles, which when worn display two images of a computer-generated picture. The two images differ slightly, one for each eye, and provide stereo vision and hence a sense of depth. They change at least fifty times per second, providing the brain with the illusion of continuous motion (just as with television). Attached to the goggles are a pair of conventional high-quality headphones, fed from a computer-generated sound source. Different delays in the same sound reaching each ear provide a sense of aural depth. There is also a pair of cumbersome gloves, rather like padded ice-hockey gloves, which permit limited flexing in all natural directions and feed information about the current position of each hand and finger to a computer. All information from the VR equipment is passed to the controlling computer and, most importantly, all information perceived by the user is generated by the computer. The last distinction is the essence of the reality that is `virtual', or computer-created, in VR. The second critical feature is that the computer should be able to modify the information sent to the user according to the information that it received from the user. In a typical situation this might involve drawing a picture of a room on the screens in the goggles and superimposing upon it a picture of a hand, which moves and changes shape just as the user's hand moves and changes shape. Thus, the user moves his hand and sees something that looks like a hand move in front of him. The power of VR again lies in the flexibility of the computer. Since the picture that is displayed need not be a hand, but could in fact be any created object at all, one of the first uses of VR might be to permit complex objects to be manipulated on the screen as though they existed in a tangible form. Representations of large molecules might be grasped, examined from all sides and fitted to other molecules. A building could be constructed from virtual architectural components and then lit from differing angles to consider how different rooms are illuminated. It could even be populated with imaginary occupants and the human traffic bottlenecks displayed as `hot spots' within the building. One long-standing area of interest in VR has been the simulation of military conflicts in the most realistic form possible. The flight simulator trainers of the 1970's had basic visual displays and large hydraulic rams to actually move the trainee pilot as the real aeroplane would have moved. This has been largely replaced in more modern simulators by a massive increase in the amount of information displayed on the screen, leading to the mind convincing itself that the physical movements are occurring, with reduced emphasis on attempts to provide the actual movements. Such an approach is both cheaper in equipment and more flexible in configuration, since changing the the aeroplane from a fighter to a commercial airliner need only involve changing the simulator's program, not the hydraulics. Escapism Escapism can be rather loosely defined as the desire to be in a more pleasant mental and physical state than the present one. It is universal to human experience across all cultures, ages and also across historical periods. Perhaps for this reason, little quantitative data exists on how much time is spent practicing some form of escapism and only speculation as to why it should feel so important to be able to do so. One line of thought would suggest that all conscious thought is a form of escapism and that in fact any activity that involves concentration on sensations from the external world is a denial of our ability to escape completely. This hypothesis might imply that all thought is practice, in some sense, for situations that might occur in the future. Thoughts about the past are only of use for extrapolation into possible future scenarios. However, this hypothesis fails to include the pleasurable parts of escapist thinking, which may either be recalling past experiences or, more importantly for this study, the sense of security and safety that can exist within situations that exist only in our minds. A more general hypothesis would note the separate concepts of pleasure and necessity as equally valid reasons for any thought. Can particular traits in a person's character be identified with a tendency to escapist thoughts that lead to patterns of behaviour that are considered extreme by their society? It seems unlikely that a combination of hereditary intelligence and social or emotional deprivation can be the only causes of such behaviour, but they are certainly not unusual ones, judging by the common stereotypes of such people. The line of thinking that will be pursued throughout this essay is the idea that a person who enjoys extreme forms of escapist thoughts will often feel most comfortable with machines in general and with computers in particular. Certainly, excessive escapist tendencies have existed in all societies and have been tolerated or more crucially, made use of, in many different ways. For instance, apparent absent-mindedness would be acceptable in a hunter/gatherer society in the gatherers but not for a hunter. A society with a wide-spread network of bartering would value a combination of both the ability to plan a large exchange and the interpersonal skills necessary to conclude a barter, which are not particularly abstract. In a society with complex military struggles, the need to plan and imagine victories becomes an essential skill (for a fraction of the combatants). Moving from the need for abstract thought to its use, there is a scale of thought required to use the various levels of machines that have been mentioned earlier. A tool that has no electronics usually has a function that is easy to perceive (for example, a paperclip). A machine with a microprocessor often has a larger range of possible uses and may require an instruction manual telling the operator how to use it (e.g. a modern washing machine or a television). Both of these examples can be used without abstract thought, merely trusting that they will do what they either obviously do, or have been assured by the manual that they will do. The next level is the use of computers as tools, for example, for word-processing. Now a manual becomes essential and some time will have to be spent before use of the tool is habitual. Even then, many operations will remain difficult and require some while to consider how to perform them. A `feel' for the tool has to acquired before it can be used effectively. The top level of complexity on this scale is the use of computers as flexible tools and the construction of the series of instructions known as programs to control the operation of the computer. Escapist thoughts begin when the operations of the programs have to be understood. In many cases, it is either too risky or time-consuming to set the programs into action without considering their likely consequences (in minute detail) first. Such detailed comprehension of the action of a program often requires the person constructing the lists of instructions (the programmer) to enter a separate world, where the symbols and values of the program have their physical counterparts. Variables take on emotional significance and routines have their purpose described in graphic `action' language. A cursory examination of most programmers' programs will reveal this in the comments that are left to help them understand each program's purpose. Interestingly, even apparently unemotional people visualise their programs in this anthropomorphic manner Weizenbaum76,Catt73 . Without this ability to trace the action of a program before it is performed in real life, the computing industry would cease to exist. This ability is so closely related to what we do naturally and call `escapism', that the two have begun to merge for many people involved in the construction of programs. For some, what began as work has become what is done for pleasurable relaxation, which is a fortunate discovery for large computer-related businesses. The need for time-clocks and foremen has been largely eliminated, since the workers look forward to coming to work, often to escape the mundane aspect of reality. There are problems associated with this form of work motivation. One major discovery is that it can be difficult to work as a team in this kind of activity. Assigning each programmer a section of the project is the usual solution, but maintaining a coherent grasp of the project's state then becomes increasingly difficult. Indeed, this problem means that there are now computers whose design cannot be completely understood by one person MMMonth . Misunderstandings that result from this problem and the inherent ambiguities of human languages are often the cause of long delays in completion of projects involving computers. (The current statistics are that cost over-runs of 300 are not uncommon, especially for larger projects and time over-runs of 50 are common SWEng ). Another common problem is that of developed social inadequacy amongst groups of programmers and their businesses. The awkwardness of communicating complex ideas to other (especially non-technical) members of the group can lead them to avoid other people in person and to communicate solely by messages and manuals (whether electronic or paper). Up to now, most absorption of the information necessary to `escape' in this fashion has been from a small number of sources located in an environment full of other distractions. The introduction of Virtual Reality, especially with regard to the construction of programs, will eliminate many of these external distractions. In return, it will provide a `concentrated' version of the world in which the programmer is working. The flexible nature of VR means that abstract objects such as programs can be viewed in reality (on the goggles' screens) in any format at all. Most likely, they will be viewed in a manner that is significant for each individual programmer, corresponding to how he or she views programs when they have escaped into the world that contains them. Thus, what were originally only abstract thoughts in one human mind can now be made real and repeatable and may be distributed in a form that has meaning for other people. The difference between this and books or paintings is the amount of information that can be conveyed and the flexibility with which it can be constructed. The Dangers of Virtual Reality As implied above, the uses of Virtual Reality can be understood in two ways. Firstly, VR can be viewed as a more effective way of communicating concepts, abstract or concrete, to other people. For example, as a teaching tool, a VR interface to a database of operation techniques would permit a surgeon to try out different approaches on the same simulated patient or to teach a junior basic techniques. An architect might use a VR interface to allow clients to walk around a building that exists only in the design stage ArchieMag . Secondly, VR can be used as a visualisation tool for each individual. Our own preferences could be added to a VR system to such an extent that anyone else using it would be baffled by the range of personalised symbols and concepts. An analogy to this would be redefining all the keys on a typewriter for each typist. This would be a direct extension of our ability to conceive objects, since the machine would deal with much of the tedious notation and the many symbols currently necessary in complex subjects such as nuclear physics. In this form, VR would provide artificial support for a human mind's native abilities of construct building and imagination. It is the second view of VR, and derivations from it, that are of concern to many experts. On a smaller scale, the artificial support of mental activities has shown that once support is available, the mind tends to become lazy about developing what is already present. The classic case of this is, of course, electronic calculators. The basic tedious arithmetic that is necessary to solve a complicated problem in physics or mathematics is the same whether performed by machine or human, and in fact plays very little part in understanding (or discovering) the concepts that lie behind the problem. However, if the ability to perform basic arithmetic at the lowest level is neglected, then the ability to cope with more complex problems does seem to be impaired in some fashion. Another example is the ability to spell words correctly. A mis-spelt word only rarely alters the semantic content of a piece of writing, yet obvious idleness or inability in correct use of the small words used to construct larger concepts often leaves the reader with a sense of unease as to the validity of the larger concept. Extending the examples, a worrying prediction is that the extensive use of VR to support our own internal visualisations of concepts would reduce our ability to perform abstract and escapist thoughts without the machine's presence. This would be evident in a massive upsurge in computer-related entertainment, both in games and interactive entertainment and would be accompanied by a reduction of the appreciation and study of written literature, since the effort required to imagine the contents would be more than was considered now reasonable. Another danger of VR is its potential medical applications. If a convincing set of images and sound can be collected, it might become possible to treat victims of trauma or brain-injured people by providing a `safe' VR environment for them to recover in. As noted Whalley , there are several difficult ethical decisions associated with this sort of work. Firstly, the decision to disconnect a chronically disturbed patient from VR would become analogous to removing pain-killers from a patient in chronic pain. Another problem is that since much of what we perceive as ourselves is due to the way that we react to stimuli, whatever the VR creator defines as the available stimuli become the limiting extent of our reactions. Our individuality would be reduced and our innate human flexibility with it. To quote Whalley Whalley directly, quote `` virtual reality devices may possess the potential to distort substantially [those] patients' own perceptions of themselves and how others see them. Such distortions may persist and may not necessarily be universally welcomed. In our present ignorance about the lasting effects of these devices, it is certainly impossible to advise anyone, not only mental patients, of the likely hazards of their use." quote Following on from these thoughts, one can imagine many other abuses of VR. `Mental anaesthesia' or `permanent calming' could be used to control long-term inmates of mental institutions. A horrendous form of torture by deprivation of reality could be imagined, with a victim being forced to perceive only what the torturers choose as reality. Users who experienced VR at work as a tool may chose to use it as a recreational drug, much as television is sometimes used today, and just as foreseen in the `feelies' of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World BNW . Conclusions Computers are now an accepted part of many peoples' working lives and yet still retain an aura of mystery for many who use them. Perhaps the commonest misapprehension is to perceive them as an inflexible tool; once a machine is viewed as a word processor, it can be awkward to have to redefine it in our minds as a database, full of information ordered in a different fashion. Some of what people find difficult to use about today's machines will hopefully be alleviated by the introduction of Virtual Reality interfaces. These should allow us to deal with computers in a more intuitive manner. If there ever comes a time when it is necessary to construct a list of tests to distinguish VR from reality, some of the following observations might be of use. The most difficult sense to deceive over a long period of time will probably be that of vision. The part of the human brain that deals with vision processing uses depth of focus as one of its mechanisms to interpret distances. Flat screens cannot provide this without a massive amount of processing to deliberately bring the object that the eyes are focussed upon into a sharper relief than its surroundings. Since this is unlikely to be economical in the near future, the uniform appearance of VR will remain an indication of its falsehood. Another sign may be the lack of tactile feedback all over the body. Whilst most tactile information, such as the sensation of wearing a watch on one's wrist, is ignored by the brain, a conscious effort of detection will usually reveal its presence. Even the most sophisticated feedback mechanisms will be hard-pressed to duplicate such sensations or the exact sensations of an egg being crushed or walking barefoot on pebbles, for example. The sense of smell may prove to be yet another tell-tale sign of reality. The human sense of smell is so subtle (compared to our present ability to recreate odours) and is interpreted constantly, though we are often unaware of it, that to mimic the myriad smells of life may be too complex to ever achieve convincingly. The computer industry will continue to depend upon employees who satisfy some part of their escapist needs by programming for pleasure. In the near future, the need for increased efficiency and better estimates of the duration of projects may demand that those who spend their hours escaping are organised by those who do not. This would lead to yet another form of stratification within a society, namely, the dreamers (who are in fact now the direct labour force) and their `minders'. It should also encourage societies to value the power of abstract thought more highly, since direct reward will be seen to come from it. Virtual Reality is yet another significant shift in the way that we can understand both what is around us and what exists only in our minds. A considerable risk associated with VR is that our flexibility as human beings means that we may adapt our thoughts to our tool, instead of the other way round. Though computers and our interaction with them by VR is highly flexible, this flexibility is as nothing compared to the potential human range of actions. Glossary Chip for microchip, the small black tile-like objects that make electronic machines. Computer machine with a microprocessor and an interface that permits by the user. Database collection of information stored on a computer which permits. to the information in several ways, rather like having multiple in a book. Email mail. Text typed into one machine can be transferred to another remote machine. Microprocessor stand-alone computer, with little option for change by the user. Program series of instructions to control the operation of a microprocessor. Risk often unforeseen dangers of applying computer-related technology new applications. Stand-alone to the rest of the electronic world. User human who uses the machine or computer. VDU Display Unit. The television-like screen attached to a computer. Virtual to mean `imaginary' or `existing only inside a computer' VR Reality. Loosely, an interface to any computer that the user to use the computer in a more `involved' fashion. Word processor application of a computer to editing and printing text. Clocks L. Mumford, Technics and Civilisation , Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1963, pp.13--15. Babbage J.M. Dubbey, The Mathematical Work of Charles Babbage , Cambridge University Press, 1978. EarlyIBM William Aspray, Computing Before Computers , Iowa State University press, 1990. Turing B.E. Carpenter and R.W. Doras (Editors), A.M. Turing's ACE report of 1946 and other papers , The MIT Press, 1980. Bletchley David Kahn, The Codebreakers , London, Sphere, 1978 JapanSord Takeo Miyauchi, The Flame from Japan , SORD Computer Systems Inc., 1982. Graphs J.L. Hennessy and D.A. Patterson, Morgan Kaufmann, California, 1990. phones Amos E. Joel, the World , Wiley, 1982. comp.risks comp.risks , a moderated bulletin board available world-wide on computer networks. Its purpose is the discussion of computer-related risks.

 



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