by Steve Ditlea
Steve Ditlea at his software-powered home work station.
Welcome to the soft future where more study time is devoted to computer languages than to foreign languages. Where interactive fiction, available only as computer software, outsells printed novels and advancement in the business world hinges on experience with software tools.
Despite what hardware partisans might say, the most lasting changes to our society for years to come will be the result of the computer software revolution just getting underway. Computer software is fast becoming a fundamental new mode of human expression, surely the most powerful cultural force since the advent of the written word.
Software encourages alternative thought processes: among the most successful of today's programmers are musicians, night owls and free spirits. Imagination is at a premium. The soft culture beckons.
We are entering an era of techno-romantics, children of the information revolution who are equally comfortable with the abstractions of technology and the emotions of the heart. Techno-romantics plead the cause of the dream as well as the datum, manifesting themselves as colorfully and enduringly as their nineteenth-century predecessors. What we commonly call "romantic" behavior these days is but a pale reflection of the visions spun out by Byron, Lamartine, Goethe and their American transcendentalist cousins Emerson and Thoreau. The first romantics were tempered by the hard-edged reality of the industrial revolution in Europe. Reacting to the social effects of industrial mechanization (while benefiting from its material abundance), they created a new culture encouraging freedom of form and emphasizing imagination and emotion.
A by-product of our own era's information revolution, personal computer software encourages similar values. It may seem a contradiction to talk about techno-romantics: how can the precision of computer technology coexist with the whims of the human heart? Yet the entire history of computing is filled with pioneer techno-romantics, equally comfortable with the most fundamental secrets of logic and the universe of emotion.
Tears on My Keyboard
"Can a computer make you cry?" asked the now classic 1983 magazine advertisement for Electronic Arts, publisher of games software. Though it admitted that "right now, no one knows," this ad described the computer as: "an interactive tool that can bring people's thoughts and feelings closer together, perhaps closer than ever before. And while fifty years from now, its creation may seem no more important than the advent of motion pictures or television, there is a chance it will mean something more. Something along the lines of a universal language of ideas and emotions. Something like a smile."
How can something as abstract as computer software be synonymous with tears and laughter? We might as well ask how letters on a page can convey emotion. The original romantics confronted this problem and did their best to change the relationship of word and heart. Though nobody (except an occasional grad student) reads Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage or The Corsair these days, the romantics nonetheless opened the way for artistic experimentation from naturalism to symbolism and every other cultural "ism" to the present.
What we now call postmodernism will be succeeded by techno-romanticism as surely as the nineteenth-century neoclassicists were put to pasture by the romantics of their day. So continues the age-old pendulum swing between mind and heart. Postmodernism tries to bring humanistic values to the hardedged techniques and materials of the twentieth century, but this effort is dated by the inflexibility of the materials used-whether paper, canvas, or concrete and glass. Hard is old. The future is soft.
Software inspires an outlook, a style, an attitude. Thanks to its maleability, techno-romantics can weave tapestries of logic and emotion as evocative as anything ever created by humans. They will appear in different media, some computer-assisted and others computer-independent, but all drawing inspiration from software's adaptability and idealism.
A computer program is the most idealized mode of human expression. A common denominator for simulating virtually anything in existence or in the human imagination, software lends itself to the perfectibility of human thought. Still, though it may be the most spiritual development in our progression from a material-based to an thought-based culture, computer software happens to be nothing more nor less than a set of well-thought-out instructions.
Like the alchemists' magical incantations for changing matter from one form to another, software is effective only if every symbol is correctly invoked. With the proper incantation, it can transform inanimate hardware into number cruncher, text handler, image generator, music maker or artificial intelligencer extraordinary. The idea of a "soft" machine, one that can be made to change function by mere commands, is as revolutionary a concept as the alphabet itself. Sequences of interchangeable software symbols, like letters of the alphabet, can be used to embody a cosmos of meanings. But computer software goes the alphabet one better: it actually carries out its intentions by activating hardware.
For those accustomed to linearity and rigidity (the legacy of the sequential alphabet), the soft future is bound to be frightening. Those who are willing to be pliant, to bend with the times, can look forward to beneficial changes. In the soft future, change will mean security, and vice versa. Learning a computer language or two will not guarantee success, but adaptability will go a long way.
For those who are willing to learn to program, software presents a new discipline, a new way of perceiving the world. Various computer languages encourage specific types of sequential and holistic thinking. Those who merely employ software, knowing nothing about how it is written, will find their work habits, artistic endeavors, entertainment and education nonetheless altered by computer programs. As a new metaphor for thought, computer software will also transform philosophy, ethics and science.
Expressing fresh expanses of creation's complexity, computer software offers a new paradigm for the larger questions in life. Advances in artificial intelligence, essentially a matter of software development, put into question theories about the workings of the human mind. If Freud's ideas were the result of the steam-powered musings of the nineteenth century, what will computer software do to change tomorrow's psychology? And what of ethics, when software can create something close to human consciousness in a machine?
The new modes of thought made possible by software will extend the reach of every creative individual. The mutability of words and images will allow old boundaries of thought to be transcended. Stretching before us is a truly soft future, where we will soar unfettered in the pursuit of our truths.
|ON SOFTER SOFTWARE
Today's software is too hard. Usually designed to work well for any and all potential buyers, a few years and hundreds of hours of interaction later a software package will still interface with you exactly as it did at the time of purchase. Your special use may make some uncommon program command the one most often employed, but you'll have to punch any number of extra keys every time you invoke it. Today's software fails to remold itself to express a history of use, and this can lead to incredible inefficiency.
There are programs that allow the advanced user to adjust default values, which are those responses the programmer decided would be most typical for users of a specific application when the software was first booted up. There are also programs that can store a series of often invoked keystrokes and can tell the machine to take the sequence you've named and perform it again. These keyboard macros, the most trivial form of softer software, force you to go through a special set of operations to enter and record changes to the program.
Why shouldn't software automatically adapt to your needs, e.g., learn from experience to change the interpretation of a command, when this is done on a human level all the time? In-human-to-human communication, we adapt our terminology and our method of understanding to our previous history of interaction with each individual. There's no reason computer software should not be as flexible.
"Softer software" is the term I invented to avoid using the poorly understood term "artificial intelligence." In fact, it is a form of artificial intelligence, though not like speech recognition or the expert data base systems that are based on specific algorithms and do not really learn dynamically. Softer software is capable of getting better and better because it has advanced pattern recognition capabilities and can change its performance accordingly.
In general, making software softer requires storing information about a user's history of program commands and analyzing its patterns. This is a form of learning, since the software can build expectations of what the user may do later. Individual characteristics of users, what they're good at and what they're not good at, can be used to establish a reasonably unique dialogue with the computer.
A data management program, for example, could recognize that you always query its files by employee name rather than by an individual's address or hair color. Taking advantage of this pattern and predicting what will be your most common operations on data, the program could customize its query file structure to put information within easier reach. Or maybe it could learn to be forgiving of your most common keyboard mistakes by ignoring misspellings.
Software softness becomes very difficult when recognizing semantics rather than specific operations is required. Say you go into a document, move the mouse to bring the cursor to a certain position and make a word boldface, then go to another position and do it again. Instead of storing up the exact positions where this takes place and trying to match them to later entries pixel by pixel, you may want your software to draw the general conclusion that you boldface the first word in a paragraph and to position the cursor appropriately. Matching things, recording and playing them back at the semantic level: this is the hard part of softening software.
It is possible to say that we have certain types of softness built into software today and that over time we will see a clear progression as programs record a greater number of user events, recognizing more general patterns and building up the dialogue throughout the computer's history. Truly softer software is still some years away, but we are on an evolutionary path where at some point soon this term will be fully justified.
BILL GATES, chairman of Microsoft Inc. and co-author with Paul Allen of The Microsoft BASIC Interpreter: The Most Widely Used Software on Earth
|COMPUTERS WILL NEVER ...
Speculation is dangerous, of course, particularly where computers are concerned. We must take into account developments as yet unimagined, whether it's cloned human cortex processors, direct sensory transponders or personal portables that upload to satellites. Even so, for better or worse, there are some things we can safely say about tomorrow's computers.
Computers will never be dull. It is the job of computers to manage tedium. They take humdrum assignments like proofreading and long division and turn them into winking lights, whirring drives and output. And by elegantly handling menial chores, they force us to higher levels of thought. Like telescopes for the brain, they extend the mind and challenge the user to think of previously unimaginable tasks. The boxes themselves are rather plain, and the chores they do are nearly subhuman, but the challenge of deploying vast computer power cannot ever be dull.
Computers will never be visionary. One of the notable flaws of the modern computer is its total inability to be slightly off target. No puns, no slips of the tongue, nothing unpredictable. In the total computer world, unpredictability may be the most important characteristic left to humans. Computers do what they are told to do, whether we meant it or not. They are not about to turn themselves on, and they will never begin something entirely new on their own. Computers cannot be improbable without being totally random.
Computers will never be warm. A computer can manage vast stores of information, process impossibly long lists and munch through files and formulas, but it can never be personable or tender. Computers can be made to talk, and robots may walk beside us on electronic leashes, but neither will ever respond on the emotional level of close companions. They won't hold our hand when we hurt or laugh at our bad puns or cry when the world wrongs us. There is no compassion in computers.
Computers will never be cheap. Through the magic of economies of scale, computer components seem to keep doing more for less money. But even the most basic system virtually demands a printer, special printer paper, then a modem requiring an electric mailbox and a subscription to a national data service. All this calls for more RAM, which means expansion boards and more peripherals. In addition, each new piece of software spawns backup copies and data disks that need backups, and the disk collection grows like a family of rabbits.
Computers will never make us better lovers. The more people work in the structured environment of the computer, the more this environment begins to rub off. An attempt to apply the computer's exactness to social relationships is an open invitation to rigid human relationships. The computer does exactly what it is told to do, while human relations are more often based on inference, context, silent understanding and the fresh breath of the unexpected.
Computers will never replace us. Whether a micro, mini or corporate monster, the computer is capacity without content, ability without direction. Its most remarkable property is that it really has no substance at all. This is the most important thing that computers will never do: they will never give themselves ideas. It is up to us to plan, to direct and to manage the vast cortical mass we've created.
ALEXANDER RANDALL V
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