More choices, please

The thought that led to yesterday’s post somehow slipped my mind while I was typing yesterday. I wanted to complain that my computers’ software often seems to offer too few choices to fit the situation. For example, at work I will sometimes get a message on the screen that says, “This program is slow to respond. What do you want to do?” The only two choices are “quit” and “wait.” What if I don’t want to do either? Why isn’t “jump off the roof” one of the choices? Or, “throw computer out the winder”? How about “eat chocolate”? That would be an acceptable alternative to choosing between “quit” and “wait.”

Another blogger commented on my post about the way we adjust to technology when technology is supposed to make life easier for us. One of my coworkers has commented that every time our computer systems are improved, it takes more clicks and commands to accomplish the same tasks. Part of the cause of that problem is too many choices. But “eat chocolate” is still, somehow, missing from the programming.

The QWERTY keyboards that we all use were invented for mechanical typewriters. The most common letters are kept distant from each other to reduce the likelihood of key jams. For roughly forty years we have been using digital keyboards without keys to jam. Yet no one has successfully introduced a new keyboard with a more intuitive arrangement of letters. We all learned the QWERTY locations, and we keep teaching them to the next generation.

Many robots are designed to go places where the human body cannot go, places too small or dangerous for a human worker. Many other robots have a humanoid design. My son (a mechanical engineer) explains that robot designers often follow the human form, not because it is better, but because the robots are expected to go the same places where humans go. Therefore, they need to be able to do the same things, such as climb steps or place objects at a certain height.

When I submit a book to Kindle for publication, a number of steps have to be followed. At one point, the automation requires several steps, and they take a few minutes to complete. The suggestions on the screen go beyond “quit” and “wait”: they recommend getting a cup of coffee or making a sandwich. This is not artificial intelligence at work; this is the cleverness of human programmers who understand that the work they do is for humans and not for machines.

We remain in control. The computers exist to serve our needs, not the other way around. And “throw the computer out the window” will always be an option, even if the computer does not realize that it is so. J.

Insert clever title here

Father knows about laptop computers, cell phones, Ipads, and the like, but he sees no use for any of them. “They bring many problems and sorrows, and very little joy,” he says. He grumbles about the cost of the Internet service and about anti-virus protection. “Your computer is a tool, my boy,” he often says. “I would never keep a shovel or a hoe that costs me money to keep up-to-date, or that sometimes fails to dig when I want to dig because of some virus or some program being updated.”

That comes from “An Incomplete Stranger,” a short story I wrote and published a few years ago. It reflects my long-standing opinion about computers—when they work, they are useful tools, but much of the time they are inconvenient, annoying, and exasperating.

When I arrive at work and log into my computer, it takes ten to fifteen minutes before I can check my email, log into my timesheet, and get started at my job. Several other programs have to “do their thing” before my computer is usable or useful. Java must tell me that an update is available, and the anti-virus software has to report, and Microsoft Teams has to log in, and several other programs have their tasks or reports to accomplish. I’ve taken to leaving tasks that don’t require the computer in place at the end of the day so I can start my computer and then be productive while it tries to wake up and get ready for the day.

Meanwhile, my home computer is logging off the Internet connection at random times, requiring me to restart the computer to reestablish the connection. I have no idea why it logs off when it does; I just have to adjust my behavior accordingly.

Microsoft Word is trying to make me a better writer. It consistently suggests “must” in the place of “have to,” “can” in the place of “is able to,” and “whether” instead of “whether or not.” Sometimes I agree with the suggestions; sometimes I like the rhythm of my longer phrases better than Word’s terse Heminwayesque style. The other day it helped me to spell “dysfunctional” correctly; it seemed to me that the word ought to begin with “dis-,“ and the correct spelling seems… well, it just does not seem to work.

Science fiction has for years conveyed warnings about allowing the machines to take over the world. Captain Kirk and Doctor Who regularly encountered societies where humans had become the slaves and computers were doing all the thinking. Kirk had a particular knack for talking a computer to death. Artificial intelligence may compete successfully with human intelligence in some areas—chess, for example—but it remains far less creative and flexible than the human mind.

People and their machines will always have a partnership in the world. In theory, machines could replace and exterminate humanity. In reality, it will never happen. They continue to be our tools, and we continue to have the last word. J.

That’s what he thinks. J’s computer