Computers Are Programmed By People Not Magic

from the trust-but-verify dept

Ben Adida has a great post discussing the misplaced faith people often have in the machines in their lives, and the way that faith often spills over to e-voting. He mentions a scene in the 2006 HBO documentary on e-voting where an election official breaks down in tears when someone shows her how her voting machines could be hacked. For computer programmers, who are intimately familiar with what goes on under the hood, the idea that we should automatically trust anything a machine tells us is a little bit ridiculous. We're aware that computers are extremely complex devices that can go wrong in any number of ways, that they're designed by fallible human beings, and that it requires a lot of very careful engineering to make sure they're secure and reliable. We recognize, in particular, that the more complex a system is, the more likely it is to have problems, and so the more skeptical we should be of its results. It's not a coincidence that $5 pocket calculators tend to work flawlessly, while complex systems like Excel and the Pentium chip sometimes make basic arithmetic errors: the greater complexity increases the number of ways things can go wrong.

But a lot of non-technical folks seem to view things the other way around. Last week, for example, I noted a a Chicago law professor who thinks that "the future is surely with the touch-screen or some other form of online voting." The problem with this statement is that if our goal is security and reliability, which it should be, the added complexity of computers and touchscreens is a big disadvantage. But this isn't obvious if you've never looked under the hood to appreciate all the things that could go wrong. Computers are not magical boxes that always produce the correct answer, but unfortunately, a lot of people seem to think that they are.

Filed Under: complexity, e-voting, magic, programming


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Mar 2008 @ 7:26pm

    Re: Another overlooked computing artifact...

    You are completely wrong.

    Do you know how many flaws there are in shipped software? A lot of the time they dont cause problems often enough to worry about and arent worth fixing. Sometimes theyre just too complex to comprehend and the flaws are just going to have to be there because nobody has the time or intelligence to find and fix them all. Software only has to run well enough, enough of the time for us to forgive them. Oftentimes the software can survive all sorts of flaws and continue chugging away. In fact there is a whole art to swallowing software errors and trying to survive. You don't make it perfect--you just handle your imperfections.

    Actually, programmers are chewed out all the time for doing things way sloppier than other kinds of engineers could. I think it is great that we dont need to be 99.9999% accurate.

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