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January 8, 2013 / 74

Computer Dummies – People Made Dumb Because They Use Computers

In a recent discussion online with an Engineer I suddenly realized that either he had a severe reading comprehension deficit, or something else was going on. I identified a bias in his thinking, but that didn’t account for the main issue. In his comments, one of the first things he referenced was his “workstation”. It was that, that led me to the real problem. He is a Computer Dummy.

What is a computer dummy? It is a person who doesn’t seem to understand that the entire range of implications of the old phrase, “garbage in, garbage out” includes not just what you put in, but also what you do not put in, and what you tell the computer that it should do with the information.

In the engineer’s case, he seemed to think that if he asks the computer a question, it will respond accurately. ie he trusts the computer to give him an accurate and complete answer.

For example. He asks the computer to determine the breaking point of a material like a certain grade of steel. Having been programmed with the different grades of steel and their “breaking points” the computer will spit out an answer and the engineer designs a system based on that answer.

But – what if the computer wasn’t programmed with the entire range of conditions that the steel could break under? What if the computer wasn’t “told” that steel will break, ie become more brittle, under extreme cold conditions? Or that heated steel may not break, but it will become elastic when heated past a certain point? So it spits out the standard answer without requiring the specifics of the environmental conditions the steel will be used in, the construction is exposed to extreme cold, and a structural failure occurs. And the base cause is that either the “engineer” is a computer dummy or the person who put the information into the computer is.

Or what if the question involves available technology? Such a question would no doubt make use of the most modern options available. But would old tech be included? Probably not. So when you ask the machine a question, you will not get the whole range of possibilities – just the most recent ones. I’ve seen situations where a job required the person to “reinvent the wheel” because they weren’t taught that wheels already existed. (metaphorically speaking, here.)

One of the advantages of having a broad age range of workers on a job is that the older workers remember how to do things that the younger ones were never taught. My house has an odd shaped roof. When I had it re-shingled, the young guy doing the job had no clue how to do my roof – until he called in an old retired roofer who said, “Sure. No problem. You just do it this way…”

Computer dummies do not seem to come to grips with the idea that a computer is just a tool. Take a claw hammer. Does the hammer know that it is only supposed to hit nails? No. Hammers have no brain. They will hit whatever you swing them at, including the picture window in the living room. I’ve actually heard people who miss the nail and say something like “Damn hammer!” How many times have you heard people who blame computers for errors? That would be a computer dummy. A computer is frequently called a brain, but it’s not. It’s only a tool. Only a brain can make intuitive leaps to arrive at answers not programmed in.

Computers are marvelous inventions – but too many times these days people are substituting them for the human brain. Like the human brain, computers have biases. And like the human brain, these biases are determined by their programming. But have you ever heard a person say “damned brain” when a bias messes up the project? Nope. Because the human probably doesn’t realize that they have a bias – a bias probably caused by the exact same process that causes computer biases. But the computer will not argue with you and “defend to the death” a bias. They just have it until it is corrected. Humans aren’t that ready to give up their cherished biases. (See “Lack of Self Awareness.”)

So…. I guess in some ways we should be less trusting of computers, which is really understanding that a fallible human being programmed them and may have made mistakes or left out information that you need to do your job.

And in other ways, perhaps we should be a bit more aware of the fact that we may have biases that need correction. I heard a Pastor one time who challenged us to think about our mindsets. The way he put it was he drew an analogy to Jesus, who died on a cross. He said when we come to an issue that doesn’t agree with our beliefs, before we go to the mat over it we should consider whether the issue is “a cross big enough to die on.” Most issues are not that important.

You are a structural engineer. Your boss says you can use a lower grade of concrete for a building, but you know that the concrete he wants you to use will probably fail if over stressed. The planned usage of the building will cause it to be what you’d consider “over stressed” from time to time. Is that a cross big enough to die on? ie Would you be willing to get fired for standing firm? You should. People’s lives depend on it. But if the boss explains why it’s not an issue, like that the planned non-standard concrete support system compensates for the lower grade concrete and yields an overall stronger structure, does that change the situation? Sure it does. Will your computer tell you that a non-standard support system is being used? No.

Don’t be a computer dummy. Limit the degree of trust you put in computers. A computer is only a tool. No more. You are the one who is supposed to do the thinking.

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One Comment

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  1. Check out “Confirmation bias” – Wikipedia or anywhere. We now have scientific studies that indicate it’s ok to believe GIGO! What a world!

    Good to know that THINKING has such an effective lobbiest.

    Not so good to note that the intractibly ignorant aren’t reading. To quote myself on another comment on your blog, “Who needs information when they’ve already formed an opinion?”

    xx,
    mgh

    Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CMC, SCAC, MCC
    – ADD Coaching Field co-founder –
    (ADDandSoMuchMore and ADDerWorld – dot com!)
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

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