Senior Editor Richard Mansfield
speculates on the perfect computer in this month's guest editorial.
Editor in Chief.
Configure, in your mind, the ideal computer. Forget about cost or the
limitations of current technology. What would the ultimate thinking
machine be able to do? What would it be like?
For example, everyone seems to agree that a perfect
automobile would combine the safety of trains with the speed and ease
of planes and the freedom and low cost of cars.
In fact, ideal things are generally safe, fast, easy
to use, versatile, and cheap. On our planet, many things already
light, water, electricity, TV, some kinds of love, to name a few. Not,
however, computers. Not yet, anyway.
If we imagine the qualities of the perfect computer,
the first thing that comes to mind is that it should be easy to use,
but we have to be careful with this one. What you might find easy to
use might perplex or annoy me.
For example, "userfriendly" is a selling point, a
current fad, among computer manufacturers. Ads are filled with pop-up
menus, windowing, icons, and mouse devices-all ways to make computing
possible for nontypists and seductive to noncomputerists. For those of
us who have learned to type or to program, however, things like this
can sometimes just get in the way. It's far easier, for many people, to
simply type LOAD "PROGRAM" than it is to move a mouse to a menu, pull
down the disk menu, move to the program name, move the mouse up to the
word LOAD, etc.
Perhaps all these features are efforts to make
computing easier to learn as distinct from easier to use. But as more
people find themselves comfortable working with computers, maybe icons
and such won't be as desirable as they now seem.
But what would be the easiest computer to use?
Probably one which could communicate in English.
The second quality, safety, is related to ease of
use. In computing, a safe environment prevents you from making serious
mistakes like erasing an entire disk by accident. Current computers are
fairly safe in this respect. But, again, some software goes too far.
You can get very frustrated with a program which says ARE YOU SURE?,
and then, after you type YES, responds with ARE YOU REALLY SURE?
The safest computer would be able to grasp the
context and intent of your actions. If you have been reformatting a
number of new disks, it should realize that and dispense with ARE YOU
SURE? for each one. Such a computer would have, in effect, common sense.
Speed, in computing, also means more than it first
appears to. In many ways, even the most limited computers are now far
faster than humans. But a truly quick computer would have the same
qualities as a quick person: a fast brain with a large memory. Speed,
in this sense, promotes versatility and power.
In some ways, the current trend toward integrated
software is an effort in this direction. The larger, faster personal
computers are combining word processing, data base management,
telecommunications, spreadsheets, etc., into one huge program. It's
quite impressive when you can ask your word processor to look over a
letter, spend a couple of seconds verifying all the spelling, and then
mail the letter for you over a modem.
So, the perfect computer would speak English, have
common sense, and be brilliant and versatile. Depending on your
personal predilections, such an entity might be indistinguishable from
Einstein or Agatha Christie: It would have all of their good qualities
and none of the bad; it would be honest, patient, always there. An
ideal intellectual companion, a silicon and plastic angel.