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Computers in Today's World

The glitz is gone. Computers no longer rule Hollywood. Robots and aliens (and alien robots in particular) are now the big villains set to rule the world. Businesses no longer seek the fastest computers but instead strive for slowness—that is, slowing down the time between buying and replacing machines.

Computers are now as disposable as old newspaper. We all have one—or will soon. But their advantages hark back to Babbage's claims for his unrealized Analytical Engine. They are accurate, error-free, fast, and cheap—particularly when you compare using a computer for calculations with doing the same work by hand. Got an aspirin?

The one claim that we won't award to the modern computer is being smarter than human calculators. Computers aren't smarter than you are, even if one can balance a checkbook and you can't. Certainly the computer has a better head for numbers than you do. After all, computers are specifically designed to work with numbers. For people, numbers are—at best—an afterthought, at least if you're not an accountant. People have bigger worries, such as finding food, shelter, and sex. Computers have us to take care of those details for them (maybe not the sex) so that they can concentrate on calculating.

Computers are good at calculating—and they're fast. Even today's cheapest personal computers can figure the product of two 40-bit numbers billions of times in the fraction of a second it takes one of us human beings even to realize we have two 40-bit numbers to multiply.

Scientists and engineers like to make comparisons between the intelligence of their computers (usually the fastest computer ever built, which changes month to month) and the thinking ability of animate creatures, typically something like "an insect brain." Most scientists know it's all balderdash, but they make these claims because it gets them big headlines. No mere bug can multiply two 40-bit numbers—or even wants to.

Computers are more accurate because they are designed that way. Using digital logic, their thinking automatically wipes out any noise that can confuse their calculations. By elaborating on the math with error-checking, they can quickly detect and prevent most mistakes. They don't think at all like you and I do. They have to be told exactly what to do, led by the hand through the process of finding an answer by a set of instructions we call a program.

Computers also have better memories than people. Again, they are designed that way. One of our human advantages is that we can adapt and shift the way we deal with things thanks to our malleable memories. Remember Mom's cooking? Computers have long-term memories designed for just the opposite purpose—to remember everything, down to the last detail, without error and without limit. Even Deep Blue, the computer that finally beat a flesh-and-blood chess Grand Master, would quickly succumb to the elements if left outside. Although able to calculate billions of chess moves in seconds, it lacks the human sense to come in out of the rain. And the feet.

What we call "computer intelligence" is something far different from what we call "intelligence" in humans. That's actually good, because even experts can't agree on what human intelligence is, or even how humans think. Things are much more straightforward for computers. We know how they think as well as how to measure how well they do their jobs.

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