Once we were computers

The other day I was driving between Oliver and OK Falls and was held up for some time due to road paving work.

The other day I was driving between Oliver and OK Falls and was held up for some time due to road paving work.

I had a CBC station on my radio and they were interviewing this guy who is some kind of AI (Artificial Intelligence) expert. He made a comment that caught my attention when he said something to the effect that before the word computer came to refer to a machine, it was a job title.

I perked up because I actually was one. My first job out of university was with an exploration company in Calgary that had crews roaming around parts of the world firing off explosive charges in shallow drill holes or under water and recording the seismic energy bouncing off geological structures that might harbour oil and/or gas.

My job was to analyze (compute) paper seismic records, identify likely petroleum bearing structures and pass my work on to a seismologist for further analysis leading possibly to a recommendation to our client to consider drilling an exploration well into the structure we had identified.

I didn’t much like being a computer level one even though I was promoted to computer level two, so after a year or so I took a leave of absence and went back to school. Returning to Calgary a couple of years later after seismic recording had “gone digital”, I discovered that a computing “machine” had taken over most of the computational aspects of my former job.

Now back to the AI guy on the radio. He went on to observe that 60 years ago, one might have overheard someone trying to explain to another that a machine was able to compute “just like a human being,” but much faster.

Nowadays one is more apt to hear a person with exceptional computational and information recall skills being described as “just like a computer.”

Extrapolating down the road this might suggest, at a time when computers are winning at chess and Jeopardy, that eventually a machine may take on all human attributes and capabilities.

This possibility the AI expert hastened to debunk, pointing out that although a computer can be programmed to do many things very quickly and accurately, it is still just a very fast adder and subtracter.

No one has yet figured out how to write code that would allow a computer to recognize an old friend across the room, or provoke a tear, a laugh or a frown at some sentimental or emotional situation.

The next meeting of the Vernon PC Users’ Club is Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Schubert Centre in the cafeteria.