The Soul of the Machine

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blue-computer-1472956The group of more than a dozen met at a row of tables by the windows towards the back of the Pinehurst dining room. It was the early 1990s, and most businesses by then had discovered the most profitable way to increase productivity meant equipping its employees with personal computers. Spreadsheets, word processing, and this new thing called “PowerPoint” became the standard. Employers, though, had one challenge – they were ill-prepared to train their employees. It was one of those “old dog – new tricks” conundrums.

So the HFL Board of Education decided the best way the school district could add value to its broader community was to focus on technology literacy. It determined HFL students would become immersed in personal computers so they would graduate with the technological proficiencies preferred by prospective employers. Whether by design or by accident, our school district found itself on the cutting edge, ahead of many colleges, let alone secondary schools.

The Board called together a group of community computer “experts” and representatives to create an ad hoc committee that would research, recommend, and implement a specific strategic plan to achieve their goal. I found myself invited because I met both requirements. The Board wanted someone from the Town Board on the Committee. As I was already given the role of school district liaison, and since I had the fewest duty assignments, my number naturally came up.

Not that it bothered me. At the time, I was still relatively fresh from my stint of running the Information Technology Department at work (when it was still called the “Management of Information Systems” – “MIS” – Department). In addition, though I was only recently married and we had no children yet, I knew the master plan called for kids and, by golly, I wanted the school they would attend to be the best it could possibly be. So I had both a personal as well as a professional (actually, an intellectual) incentive to join this new committee.

There I sat at this long table of esteemed community members. The Board’s objective was described and a lively discussion ensued. Two things quickly became apparent. First, I was the youngest member of the group. Second, I was the only person with actual extensive work-related experience with personal computers, local area networks, and getting a large organization trained and operating in such an environment. As the meeting ran on, I felt more and more eyes turn to me with each and every question.

Was I intimidated? No. Rather, I was on an intellectual roll. I had my systems analyst hat on and I was performing up to the task.

Then it struck me. I was so consumed with the brainstorming that I ignored the one counterpoint to everything we discussed. Yes, we could theoretically create the system being discussed, and, yes, it would benefit the students to be in this system, and, yes, employers would find this very attractive when looking to hire our students, but we were overlooking a vital part of the equation.

As enthusiasm among the administrators, the faculty members, and the community members peaked, they confidently imagined a district where every student had access to a computer, where all assignments were collected into one central system, and where bookbags – and books, even – were a thing of the past.

And it was at this last point that the truth struck me like a library shelf of Encyclopedia Britannicas. At the height of their confidence, at the very point the group collective thought they were about to take the very first step into a brave new world, I made this suggestion:

As a final capstone before entering a fully digital, paperless, universe, students must watch, together in class, the Star Trek (Original Series) episode “Court Martial.” Of course, I announced this in a matter-of-fact manner that presupposed everyone in that room knew exactly what episode I was referring to and why it was significant to our discussion. I did this knowing full well no one in that room knew exactly what episode I was referring to and why it was significant to our discussion. Heck, I figured if people were thinking I was a geek, why not cement that impression?

For those of you (like the folks on that committee) not familiar with the classic episode (which featured Elisha Cook, Jr. as the leading guest star), here’s the summary. Kirk is court martialed because, despite his memory recalling a different sequence of events, the computer record showed he jettisoned a space pod prior to signaling red alert. This error caused the death of a crewman, a one-time rival of Kirk (hence, Kirk’s motive). Elisha Cook, Jr., his attorney, relies only on books, not computers.

The computer evidence was damning. Why? Because computers are objective. They perform exactly as programmed – and the Enterprise’s computer was checked and it passed all its dignostic tests. In short, a computer has no soul. It acts without passion, diligently following what is commanded of it.

For many in that meeting, this is what they thought of computers. Indeed, most of my descriptions, ideas, and suggestions reinforce this perception. There was, however, one major error in this assumption. Implicit in this view, just like with the judges in Kirk’s court martial, was the infallibility of the computer programmer’s ethics. In other words, computers are very efficient. When programmed for good, they efficiently output “good.” When programmed for bad, they efficiently output “bad.” In the Star Trek episode, we learn the computer’s programs were altered for “bad” and produced an erroneous sequence. The diagnostic test only showed the computer faithfully followed its program – it didn’t check to see if the actual program was “bad.”

Therein lies the great fallacy of computing. Yes, computers make life a lot easier – just as long as no one has installed any malicious – or incorrect – programming. Today, everyone is aware of this. A quarter of a century ago, at the dawn of this new age of technology, many only saw the potential good, not the potential bad. We can certainly teach technology, but that’s never going to be a substitute for ethics.

Before we put our unquestioning trust into the bare logic of computers, before we place our most treasured possessions into the foggy nothingness of some virtual cloud, before we give our lives over to the heart of the machine, we must know this one indisputable fact:

The machine has no soul.

Only Man does.

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