Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Survival Of The Dumbest


Once computers were very big (an entire floor of a large office building) and very fast (or so it seemed to puny humans). Today, they are much bigger, not in real size but in memory and storage. They are also much faster—in real time. Their speed is beyond human comprehension, like the speed of light.

Computer memory and storage have become so big, using it has almost zero cost. As a result, software makers feel free to be needlessly wasteful. Computers have also become so fast, the same software makers can afford to be mind-numbingly inefficient.

Hardware doesn’t just grow in power and speed, it also adds new gizmos. Cameras, touch-screens, and the ever present Internet weren’t even dreams in the beginning. However, we still need software to operate the new gizmos. And wasteful and inefficient software cannot produce smarter computers.

The overabundance of storage and speed subverts the incentive to improve software. Without the environmental pressure from limited resources (e.g., storage and speed), this won’t happen as it does in nature. To evolve, software needs to keep the best from the past, try new ideas, and keep what works.

So while hardware inevitably gets bigger, faster, and does more, software will not become smarter. (I’m talking about real capability, not clever gadgetry or advertising puffery.) It will not improve as long as they can keep making money doing what they’ve been doing.

After all, money is the sole yardstick computer makers use to measure the success of their devices. Whether they are better products in any real sense—efficiency, productivity, true functionality—is entirely irrelevant. What really counts is that they appear, as the old slogan says, “new and improved.”

Therefore, computer makers focus on advertising: words and pictures designed to fool people into paying more to acquire far less than they expected. Their disappointment can be alleviated only by buying the next “new and improved” device. Hardware gets better, but computers will never be smarter than their software.

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