Computers Compete with Their Makers
Most people are astounded when they witness a demonstration of what computers can do. Some recent developments add to this impression. A writer for “Smithsonian” magazine tells of an experimental speech-recognition device he witnessed. A researcher spoke the writer’s name into a microphone attached to a computer terminal. Almost at once, he writes, “‘Richard M. Restak.’ correctly spelled, appeared on the viewing screen.” The computer also correctly displayed a sample letter dictated to it. Restak says that soon “inexpensive speech-recognition machines may be available to take dictation of a letter and produce a first draft within a few seconds.” Secretaries, move over!
Not only are computers reducing sound to print, some are producing sound from print. The U.S. Library of Congress has a device for the blind that reads aloud from an open book placed face down over a scanner. This machine’s sound-producing circuits are controlled “in much the same way the human brain controls the jaw, tongue and throat muscles in order to shape the vocal tract for the production of human speech,” says “Smithsonian.” It even “can vary emphasis on particular sounds in a manner similar to natural spoken English . . . emphasizing some words more than others, and pausing at various times to avoid ‘machinelike’ speech,” a failing of other such reading machines.
Other severely handicapped persons may benefit from a computer system that allows them to type merely by moving their eyes. The device is able to follow eye movements that briefly fix on letters of the alphabet. Then it types the letters at a rate that has allowed some volunteers to achieve speeds of 18 words per minute after practice. Another similar computer system for the handicapped is installed on mechanized wheelchairs. It allows paralytics to “order” their wheelchairs wherever they want to go merely by voice commands.
A couple in London reportedly have adapted a home computer to act as a nanny for their baby. The baby’s father, a computer consultant, programmed the computer to respond the instant baby Gemma cries by talking to her in a soothing tone, using parental voices. The surrogate nanny will also tell bedtime stories and teach the baby three languages as she begins to talk. Whether microphones and loudspeakers will be an adequate substitute for the tenderness of human contact is another matter.
A more ominous development comes from Australia, where a computer is said to have written its own program for solving a chess problem. Ross Quinlan of the University of Sydney developed a system of “automatic programming.” The machine-written computer program was five times faster than the best program that Quinlan himself could write for the same purpose. Some experts fear that such systems could develop into a situation where humans could not understand computer “reasoning” on key decisions. Professor Donald Michie of Edinburgh University, Scotland, warns that a “human window” should be built into all computer systems that allows people to query the machine as to why it reached a certain conclusion.
Even in view of such impressive computer accomplishments, “The Brain Book” says that “in terms of its complexity and versatility, the human brain far surpasses any computer on earth.” This recently published volume observes that a computer’s speed in calculations and step-by-step logic is far surpassed by the brain’s ability in “parallel processing, integrating and synthesizing information, and abstracting it from generalities.” And computers do not even come close to the brain’s ability to recognize a face or an object in an instant. “A transistorized computer capable of all the human brain can do would not fit inside Carnegie Hall,” observes “The Brain Book,” and it would weigh more than 10 tons, even using the miniature circuitry now available. In fact, says the book, “the whole of the world’s telephone system is equivalent to only about one gram of your brain—a piece the size of a pea!”