Garbage in, Garbage out

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Computers are strange things, aren’t they? I mean, we give them such respect and authority, as if they were somehow more reliable and knowledgeable than mere human.

Replacing humans with computers is touted as a very intelligent thing to do. Take away all that human fallibility, all the personality-driven issues that can warp a decision, or a choice, and – hey presto! – everything is better.

Personally, as someone who has yet to even generally grasp how an old-fashioned telephone works (I mean, how does it get through all those wires and possible junctions to find the person you’re calling? Inconceivable!), computers leave me completely befuddled. Microprocessors, what are they? How do they get those little icons that you just click on to open new screens and possibilities? It is a magical and scary world, the world of computers.

Then there are the computer geeks: the ones who claim to not only understand computers, but know how to make them work, how to fix them, and how to get them to play games. Remarkable people, also extremely irritating in their condescension. But, Aha! And also Oho! The superior attitude of the computer-savvy needs to be toned down a bit, I think. Lately, I’ve come across concrete evidence that computers are not all they’re booted up to be.

There was the case of the Airbus 320, the plane that was supposed to make the pilot redundant. All computer, all the time, they said, leaving the pilot with a game-style joystick instead of the traditional controls. People on the flight deck (those that were left, that is) would be mere spectators as the plane flew itself, by computer. That is, until the planes started missing runway landings, performing very odd and frightening manouevres in flight, and fighting the pilot when they tried to correct things.

My most recent favourite computer story involves an Irish woman in Australia who applied for citizenship in that fine penal colony. Part of the application process required her to take an English language proficiency test, both written and oral. As a native English speaker, with two university degrees (both taken in English), and a career as a veterinarian, you might expect her to have no difficulty with the test.

Alas, she failed! It turns out, a computer program set the test, and evaluated it too. There’s some uncertainty about what went wrong, though some think her Irish accent confused the computer. This is in Australia, where the accents are something else again, and the form of English spoken sometimes seems like a foreign language. Whatever the cause, it seems computers may no longer be used to evaluate English-speakers’ English.

Closer to home, in every sense, I have had the experience of computer malfeasance in the Canada Post Corporation. We at the Times spend an inordinate amount of money ensuring that the paper gets to your mailbox every week, and we trust Canada Post with that high and lofty task. I was first troubled when Canada Post returned a cheque we had mailed them to pay for their services. The problem, according to a note on the envelope, was that we had used the wrong postal code. Think about this: Canada Post received our mail, their computer saw that the postal code (for Canada Post!) was incorrect, and sent it back to us. Would an actual flesh and blood person have made that decision, or would they have shrugged and made nasty comments about idiots not knowing their postal code?

But, more fascinating than that is the fact that Canada Post Corporation have now decided that Oxford Mills no longer exists! As commercial customers, we have to have the correct forms prepared to allow our paper to be delivered in the various postal districts we serve. Canada Post have informed us that they have no record of a place called Oxford Mills in Ontario. Your personal letters get delivered because real people in Kemptville know, for a fact, that Oxford Mills has not suddenly disappeared. They are not meant to deliver commercial mail without the proper paperwork. Thankfully, those real people in Kemptville continue to be professionals and do their job, in spite of the computer’s refusal to believe in the existence of Oxford Mills. I await further communication with the corporation on the existential reality of where I live.

Of course, it is people who program computers, and it is they who cause much of the hassle we blame on computers. Garbage in, garbage out is the traditional description of these mistakes. So we should look forward without any qualms whatsoever to the days when artificial intelligence (AI) will allow computers to learn to program themselves. Happy days! No need to fear some idiot accidentally deploying bombs, eradicating communities on-line, or miscounting electoral votes. No, it will be a Brave New World. Aren’t you excited?

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