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Crash Course

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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, June 18, 2006

In science fiction movies, computers always become smarter and smarter, until they achieve consciousness, at which point they get the bright idea of exterminating the human race. No one's ever invented a fully functioning science fiction computer that didn't have a serious hankering for homicide. They're like silicon sharks.

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And they're always good at what they do. Terminators are admirably efficient at going back in time to kill the parents of the boy who will later lead the human insurrection. And the Matrix is what engineers would call a "robust" system for turning humans into batteries for powering yet more machines.

Here's what's missing from this futuristic vision: You, waiting in line yet again at Best Buy, wondering if the techies have fixed your #$%@#$ laptop.

In the real world of the 21st century, the only thing computers kill efficiently is themselves. We've created a generation of suicidal, reflexively crashing machines. I'd do anything to own a computer like HAL in "2001: A Space Odyssey," which, though sociopathic, at least would tell you to your face that he saw you talking smack about him and is therefore not going to open the pod bay doors.

I had to take my laptop to the computer geeks because I kept getting the BSOD -- the Blue Screen of Death. That's literally what it's called. It's a bunch of words and a blue background that flashes when the whole thing crashes.

"Your operating system is corrupt," a computer technician informed me in a monotone. I felt the sting of the verdict. The language of computer malfunction is never reassuring. "You might have a virus" has become such a common phrase in our society it ought to be engraved on our coins. If not a virus, you might have a worm. Or you've been invaded by a Trojan. The techies all but say, "Your laptop has an oozing, suppurating lesion."

It's a tough job, working at the computer help desk. Every customer shows up crazy-mad. The fellow behind the desk didn't cause the problem, and might actually fix it, but he still gets yelled at, because he's the human face of an entire universe of dysfunctional machines -- of corrupt, vile, putrescent operating systems. And you can't yell at the machine, since, even if it hadn't ceased to function altogether, it was never a good listener.

After my laptop problems, I called one of the leading technologists in the country: Jaron Lanier, inventor of the concept of virtual reality. Lanier is blunt about what's happening today with computers: "The software continues to suck."

Corporations rush new software to market even though it's crashy and kludgy and totally verklempt. We're still at the beginning of a long process -- stuck in the Model T era of information technology. Sure, computer chips steadily improve, but the codes are buggier than ever. "Hardware does get better -- that's called Moore's Law," Lanier said. "Software gets worse, and that doesn't have a name, because it's embarrassing."

Lanier has a profound conclusion: Computers are fundamentally misdesigned. The founders of the industry used 19th century technologies such as telephone and telegraph lines as their inspiration. As a result, computers analyze linear streams of data. One mistake anywhere along the line, and you may get BSOD'd. It would have been smarter to make machines that respond to patterns, that sense many things at once and get a general feel for things. Computers would thus exist, Lanier has written, in "a world of approximation rather than perfection."

This is how humans survive. We're pattern recognizers. We're touchy-feely, not linear. We don't try to be perfect -- we just bumble along, and we don't let a mistake here and there crash our entire existence. The most sophisticated robot in the world can't navigate a room full of furniture as well as a human toddler can.

So even as we hate ourselves for being unable to figure out why our computer has crashed again, we can be proud that the human mind is niftier than anything you can buy from Dell or Hewlett-Packard.

I'm replacing the corrupt operating system, and if that doesn't work, I'll terminate the laptop outright. Show it who's boss -- still.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.

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