Monday, May 23, 2011

Are You Smarter Than a Computer?


C’mon. Admit it. You've felt like that, right? We all have. We hate computers. At best, they're miracles of technology, always out-thinking you, out-communicating you, out-social-networking you and just generally being smart-asses. At worst, they're stubborn pieces of techno-junk that refuse to give you what you want, just because you didn’t use the right secret handshake. ARGGHHH!

That’s why everyone ran out to buy an iPad … Oooh! A computer that will be nice to me! But that honeymoon’s over now too. One of those passionate affairs that burns itself out quickly.  Even the iPad has that passive-aggressive behavior so common in modern electronics.

In old Star Trek episodes, you could destroy a computer just by asking it some paradoxical question. Back then, computers understood speech perfectly, so you could just say “Computer, this sentence is false. True or false?” and it would immediately (because computers are so fast, you see) start spinning reels of tape back and forth, and showering the room with sparks and smoke.

Nowadays, of course, computers are much more robust. Now, to get a computer to crash, you have to do something wild, like … oh, say, try to view a Web page, or accidentally click a button twice or something extreme like that.

Seriously, if computers can process literally billions of instructions every second, why does it take so freakin’ long to do what you want? To understand this, you have to know something about how computers work.

The hub of a computer's nervous system is the Central Processing Unit (CPU).  This is the part that actually runs programs.  On most computers, there's a program running all the time, called the Operating System (or OS).  The OS is the software that waits for you to type and click and scream and swear, and then, if the weather's right and the moon is in the correct phase, it deigns to run whatever program you actually asked for.

But really, the operating system only wants to run a program called Idle.  Idle is what's running when you're not doing anything.  Idle is itself a program that doesn't do anything, but computers seem to find it amusing.  So what the operating system is really trying to do is get rid of you so it can get back to running Idle.  I guess it's kind of like Facebook for machines.

So really, whenever you use a computer, you're interrupting it when it's trying to play its favorite game.  If you've ever been the parent of a teenager, you know how successful that is.

Any more questions?

2 comments:

Dan said...

very good post, kept it nice and simple.

Peter Davis said...

Thanks, Dan! "Simple" is my middle name.

No, wait ...