Tuesday, April 23, 2024

The computer age: What future wonders could be headed our way?



Sam Houston is the publisher of the Hood County News. He is also an actor, author, playwright, performer and entertainment producer/promoter.


Growing up in the age of computerization has been a time of awe and amazement. How can a small machine change and enrich our lives so much? Technology gives us access to information and data at lightning speeds, all while enhancing our lives with the entertainment opportunities it provides.

The computer allows us to connect to people around the world, to have access to weather, news, and sports, and to store an endless number of photos and information. We can order goods and services, learn how to speak a different language, or find out the name of the first movie Cary Grant starred in. Truly remarkable stuff!

I often reflect on how a large metropolitan newspaper could produce both a morning and evening newspaper without the use of computers. The newspaper staff had to be twice as big and work twice as long as what we do now. The stress had to be palpable. Maybe that is why in old movies they depict newspaper editors as being tattered and worn while they seem to have three cigarettes burning in the ash tray and a bottle of booze in their bottom desk drawer! It would not have been a job for the faint of heart.

I venture to say, few if any people under the age of 40 even know what a “slide rule” is, much less know how to use one. The device was invented by mathematician William Oughtred in 1620 and until the electronic calculator was invented in 1973, it was the instrument of choice for engineers, scientists, and mathematicians for performing complex mathematical computations. 

Just this past week I was showing someone a photo of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, taken while the project was under construction in the mid-60s. The stainless-steel arch is 714 feet high and was designed to be constructed so the legs of the arch grew from ground level to meet at the pinnacle 714 feet above the ground.  Importantly, when the top and final piece was set in place, the two legs could not be out of kilter more than ½ of an inch. Think about that! Only ½ inch of variance over 714 feet! If I had been on the construction crew, we would have been off that much within the first five feet!

All of the Arch design and layout was completed by engineers and draftsmen who used a slide rule; there were no design computers in 1965. The same is true with the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids of Egypt, and the Brooklyn Bridge. Stop and think how much easier the job would have been if computers had been around on those projects to keep track of logistics, handle design issues, and schedule tasks for workers. Looking back through contemporary eyes, it is almost unconceivable how such monumental projects could be accomplished without computers.

I recently learned from a “bird watcher” friend that there is a new app to assist them in identifying different species. Basically, it allows a person to record the birds as they sing, and the computer app identifies the species of bird from the sounds they make. This allows a bird watcher to identify birds easily and accurately. Simply by hearing the sounds they make, the computer can distinguish between a Golden Cheeked Warbler and a Black Capped Vireo. Fascinating!

It got me to thinking, will computer engineers eventually do the same thing with human voices? Suppose a computer could listen to someone’s voice and identify the speaker’s motive? What if somehow the computer could discern if they were telling the truth? Imagine entering a business agreement and the computer discerning if the other side would be a good partner? Will we ever get to such a point?

This could be taken to extremes. Suppose during the first date a computer could tell a young woman if the man she is having dinner with snores, leaves the lid up on the toilet, or leaves his towel on the floor of the bathroom. Perhaps it could tell the young man if the woman he is pursuing likes to shop incessantly, is consistently late,  or if she will be a good mother. Would such an app be progress or a recipe for social disaster? If we live long enough, I am sure we will find out.

Thought for the day: The real danger is not that computers will begin to think like men, but that men will begin to think like computers.

Until next time… I’ll keep riding the storm out.

sam@hcnews.com | 817-573-7066, ext. 260