The tao of tech

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I don’t want to worry you, but …

… a strange technological revolution has happened. None of us have noticed, even though it is happening right in front of our eyes. It is hiding in plain sight.

Here are the clues. Yesterday my laptop’s Internet Explorer started to have a wobble. It kept crashing, which prompted it to look to the internet for a solution, which in turn caused it to crash again. And before too long I had an endless loop of error message upon error message.

So I did all the things we have been programmed to do. I closed down Internet Explorer and opened it up again. Still not working. I switched the laptop off and switched it back on again. Still not working. I rebooted the wireless router. Made no difference.

Other computers in the house had internet access, so I simply shrugged and turned to Google Chrome instead. And this morning Internet Explorer seems to be working fine. Whatever intractable problem it had yesterday has mysteriously vanished. It has healed itself.

Patti is having a problem with her new Kindle Voyager. She tried to fix it herself, then phoned Amazon and spoke to a techie. And I’m willing to bet that the things they tried would all have been variations on the same theme. Switch it off and switch it back on again. Reboot.

It is the same with almost everything technological. Every now and again it stops working for no apparent reason. The only cure is to switch it off and start again. Or to get a new one. And to swear a lot. And feel guilty that it might have been our fault for “doing something wrong”.

The funny thing is that when you speak to the experts, they all say the same thing. Switch it off and start again.

That’s when it hits you. Nobody really knows how a computer works any more. To be sure, there are specialists who understand how each little part works. But when you add it all together, no-one really knows what is going on. First we have the hardware, then the operating system, then whatever software and apps you choose to load, then the operating system gets updated. Then software and apps get updated. Not to mention the odd virus, cookie or piece of malware.

Your computer isn’t a magnificent machine, finely crafted by a single engineer. It is a coral reef, with new bits stuck on top of old bits stuck on top of even older bits. Your computer is an organic structure.

That’s why no-one truly understands computers any more. They have become more complicated than any one human can possibly understand.

Not only that, but within a few days of owning a new computer, you will have made it unique. The programs that you put onto it, the settings you change, the apps you download – they are all giving your computer a unique personality, and a unique set of problems.

Which is why the standard solution is to switch it off and switch it back on again.

And that’s when it hits you. The hidden question is “do we really need to know how stuff works?”

Engineering used to be easy. Things were invented by clever blokes like Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Alec Issigonis or Barnes Wallis. They designed things – bridges, cars, bouncing bombs. And if something went wrong with one of their creations, a bloke in brown overalls would know which part to fix. Usually involving a lathe and earthy names like grunion pins.

That was when we knew how stuff works. It did what we damn well told it to do.

Modern tech can change itself. Within limits, it can heal itself, improve itself. My laptop shows me adverts which are based on the things I have Googled. My phone has worked out where I live and will occasionally advise me to set off early because the traffic is bad. My car has apparently adjusted itself to suit my driving style, which is a slightly alarming thought.

Frankenstein’s monster isn’t only the creation of Dr Frankenstein. It is also a creature in its own right.

So maybe it isn’t such a bad thing that our computers are improving themselves like this. Sure we might get the odd glitch when the poor little silicon chappy drives himself into a dead end. But the good news is that the devices are a lot cleverer than we could make them if we truly designed them from scratch. That cleverness comes at a price with these occasional silicon brain farts. But we are at the beginnings of this technology. Things should get better over time.

But, here’s a funny thought. When scientists first started looking at artificial intelligence they imagined writing a complicated program with lots of “if, then” statements in it. If this happens, then do this. And that is extremely difficult to do, as there are lots of “ifs” that make up intelligence.

There was also a huge amount of arrogance in this approach. We were assuming that the only way for computers to be intelligent was if we wrote the script for them.

More recently, we have started looking at ways to help computers to learn for themselves. Instead of trying to program them line by line, we can give them the capacity to learn and then let them develop intelligence by trial and error. That’s how a baby learns. It sticks just about everything in its mouth until it works out which ones taste nice and which ones don’t.

We would get learning computers that are constantly evolving as they experience more of the world around them.

And that gets us back to our $64,000 question. Do we need to know how stuff works? Because there might come a point where we stop designing technology – instead we allow computers and other gadgets to design themselves. And fix themselves.

Now let’s hit the fast forward button and go into science fiction mode. What happens if we build a learning computer and give it an advanced 3D printer capable of building more advanced computers and more advanced 3D printers?

Would we have the courage to give the machine its freedom to design, build and improve?

And if we did, what marvels might it come up with?

Or would we be afraid of a Frankenstein’s monster with the power to create newer and better monsters?

We are not there yet. For now we have computers and kindles that are becoming so complicated and self-modifying that occasionally we need to stop them and restart. Or ask those nice people at Amazon to send us a new one.

We are heading for a world where computers fix themselves, which is not that big a step away from building themselves.

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