When Daniel Power was trying to decide which of several job offers to accept, he turned to a trusted adviser for help: his home computer.
Power, an assistant business professor at the University of Maryland--a job his computer helped him decide on--is not the only one using computers to help sort out some of life's more pressing problems. One innovative buff used the graphics capability on his personal computer to decide how to arrange his furniture.
Computerized decision-making may never be as popular as PAC-MAN, but as more and more people become comfortable with cursors and insert and delete keys, interest in expanding the personal computer market beyond record-keeping is mushrooming.
Programs are now available to help business managers with marketing, employe selection and other matters. The military uses computers to help plan tactical maneuvers and troop placement. Physicians and therapists are turning to computers for help in making diagnoses.
Some of the professional decision-making software is beginning to filter down to home-computer use. Business managers' electronic spreadsheets can help the at-home budgeter with all sorts of financial decisions, from allocation of resources to investment planning. Power designed his own program, DECISION AID, primarily for business use, but it also has various personal applications, such as evaluating job offers.
Another program on the market, DecisionMaster, promises to help the user do everything from select a house to decide whom to vote for. "Once you've used DecisionMaster a few times," proclaims the manual, "you may find you can't make a decision without it."
"Essentially the computer helps you quantify an emotional decision," says Sandra Browne, a co-author of the manual. "It helps you to see the decision in black and white."
How? Say, for example, you are trying to decide whether to buy a town house in Washington, a contemporary in Reston or renovate your existing home in Takoma Park.
The first thing you would do is sit down at the keyboard and punch in the factors you consider most germane to your decision: cost of the house, commuting distance, property tax rate, neighborhood schools, the location's prestige, to name a few.
Next, you would assign a weight to each factor based on its importance to you. If, for example, cost is the overriding consideration, then it would get a weight of nine on a nine-point scale. Prestige may get a three, schools a seven and so on.
The computer then would declare which house seems to be the best buy for you (and possibly affirm what you knew all along).
Similarly, if you can't decide which political candidate to vote for, you can enter and rank the factors you consider most important, be it the candidate's voting record, ability to handle a crisis, position on key issues or color of eyes.
DECISION AID, the program Power designed, uses a more conversational, chatty format as it attempts to guide the user into rational--rather than emotional--thinking.
During one DECISION AID user's heart-to-heart talk with her computer, she typed that she was unhappy with her life but unsure how to improve it.
When the computer asked what alternatives she had considered, she listed, among others: moving to a new city, switching jobs, ending a long-term relationship.
"Are you sure you can't generate more alternatives?" prodded the computer.
"Have you considered," it asked, "no change/do nothing as an alternative?"
Then the computer asked the operator how likely it was that each alternative she considered could be accomplished, and whether it would lead to the stated goal: happiness.
The dialogue, with the computer playing devil's advocate, went back and forth for a half-hour. The full program can take as long as three hours.
The "conversation," says the young woman, has helped her to narrow and sharpen her options, "more rationally, without so much emotional clutter," although she has yet to make any decisions.
Such computerized decision aids could be dangerous, of course, if people believe everything the computer tells them.
"Just because it comes out of the terminal does not mean it's accurate," warns Allen Sneider, a director of Apple/Boston software users' group, affiliated with the Boston Computer Society, one of the largest software users' groups in the country. He adds that validity of the answers depends on the quality of the program and the underlying assumptions built into it.
His associate, Boston Computer Society president Jonathan Rotenberg, points out that computers are unnecessary for many routine personal decisions. "It's like using a large oven to cook a piece of toast. Sometimes, people are just better off doing it the old-fashioned way."
Although Power concedes that it would be a waste of time to turn to the computer for advice on every dilemma, he and Rotenberg concur that computers can help with complex decisions involving a number of different factors: choosing a car, for example, or . . . a home computer.
Power claims that computerized decision aids also can help reduce family tensions by forcing members to sort out and discuss their priorities when they are at odds over where to go on vacation, for example, or what school the children should attend.
Sneider predicts that within two or three years, computers will be used as personal travel agents. Family members will plug in their ages and interests and wind up with a detailed itinerary from a data bank full of tourist information for different locations. He envisions the computer helping a family select a night out by displaying menus from various restaurants.
Also on the horizon is a home career-counseling program. The American College Testing (ACT) Program, Hunt Valley, Md., is studying the feasibility of developing for home or library use the kind of counseling and information system now available only through professional counselors.
Such programs are designed to help students identify interests and abilities through a series of exercises and match them with different occupations. The programs provide large amounts of annually updated information about different occupations, education and other requirements.
The programs also could limn the college decision by telling which schools offer the best programs in different fields, tuition, male-female ratio and other characteristics.
The response of students who have used such systems is "so uniformly positive that it's embarrassing," says Ray Potter, Princeton, N.J., program manager of what is commonly called SIGI--the Educational Testing Service's System of Interactive Guidance and Information, which also has a Washington office.. "Students like the computer's anonymity and have fun using it."
JoAnn Harris-Bowlsbey, assistant vice president of ACT, says such systems are not available widely to adults, despite research showing that about 30 percent of adults are either looking for work or considering it: one reason she wants to devise a home version of ACT's DISCOVER system.
Such a system also could be used for retirement planning, she says, by helping people identify skills developed over a lifetime and how best to use those skills in leisure-time pursuits.