If I could talk to the machines

Richard P. Grant


'I need a new PRAM battery'.

My companion was not much of a conversationalist, but this was a poor opening gambit even by his standards. An odd man, Daniel, but good with computers. Almost spookily so. With a glance over my shoulder, I moved the car into the stream of traffic.

Hand goes forward like this, left foot comes up as the other moves down slightly, and the machine does my bidding. We communicate with our machines and tools at one level removed. Much of it is so natural, we barely pay it a second thought.

'We could always fly by Maplin's on the way', I suggested, 'the lunchtime traffic might not be too bad.'

'Not that sort' he replied.

Not that sort? What other sort was there? I shrugged and the rest of the journey passed in silence. I ran the car up the driveway and stopped in front of the garage door.

The shaped metal enters the slit, levers are engaged, moved aside, and I have access to my house. The history of humanity is the history of tools. Our mental processes are interpreted by our all too frail bodies, which in turn use something else to achieve an effect. And as for communication - sometimes it seems as if language was designed to hinder the flow of thoughts between humans, not enable it.

I indicated the stairs.

'The iMac's in Rachel's room. I'll put some coffee on'.

A magician when it came to fixing computers. All except the most serious hardware failure yielded to Daniel's magic touch. And he never, ever allowed anyone to watch. Five minutes behind closed doors was all it took. Yes, I was curious, damned curious. As I made my way into the kitchen, I flipped a switch under a shelf. Upstairs, my computer stirred from sleep, and a small, hidden camera began recording.

The interface model of keyboard, mouse and monitor are familiar to us now, but are only relatively recent innovations. Aside from our fingers, the first computing devices were probably wood, later stone, henges. The abacus (about 600 BC) was the next big step in human-computer interfaces. Punched cards did not appear until the 18th century, allowing binary switches to become important. However, punched cards became significant in the US census of 1890, played a part in some of the worst atrocities of the last century, and eventually became a symbol of corporate oppression . They remained the primary method of human-computer interface until the keyboard. The mouse, invented in 1968, did not become popular until the 1980s .

Five minutes. I shouldered the door open.

'Here's your coffee. How's it going?'

'Just about done.'

I peered over his shoulder, to see the extension loading sequence complete.

'There we go,' smiled Daniel, 'another satisfied customer!'

'What was it, then?' I asked, dragging a chair over with my foot, 'and what about your battery?'

The human/computer interface remains primitive . We have to use our hands, have to concentrate on the mechanics of typing, of correcting typos, of finding the mouse (figure 1) - all of which have a negative impact on productivity and quality of life (how many bugs are introduced by typos, I wonder?). Pioneering text-to-speech and dictation software, including the speech control built into my computer are steps in the right direction. But I still have to keep my coffee away from the keyboard, and when my two year old climbs on my lap my best bet is just to shut down.

'Oh, just a bad sector - should be OK now,' he replied as he turned, 'but yes, I'm a little worried -' he choked off the words, and fell off the chair.

In Craig Thomas's ‘Firefox’ novels the Americans steal a stealth Russian fighter plane that is controlled by thought . Although it seemed fantastic at the time, workable brain-actuated control is close to being realized . Obviously, the military has a keen interest in this technology, but devices - such as brain implants for tetraplegics - for the disabled are already in use. And for US$1,995 you could be the proud owner of a gizmo that fits over your head and controls your computer .

The paramedic said it seemed to be some kind of coma. He wasn't dead, but deeply unconscious. Of course, I had to give a statement to the police. I told them that he'd come round to fix a computer, that he was good at it, and no, he hadn't complained of feeling unwell, yes that's right, he just keeled over, no he hadn't even tasted the coffee - look I'll drink some myself . . .

There is great potential here. But as with any new technology there is the bizarre and the downright crazy. Those who implant chips in their arms and then claim to be a cyborg; part man, part machine, because the signal to open a door comes from their arm instead of a card in a wallet, or who believe that such implants enable them to share each other's pain, movement and even sexual excitement .

After they'd gone, I remembered the camera. Understandably, by then I had lost interest in Daniel's methods. On the other hand, I might have found a clue as to his collapse, or at least exonerating evidence.

And what about how computers communicate with us?

What the heck does -1029 nbpNISErr Error trying to open the NIS mean, anyway?

Eventually, I deleted the footage. But the image of a man, with a wire connecting his arm to the Firewire port, will remain with me for a long time.

©RPG 2001. Cambridge, 04Sep01