Getting Down to the Truth

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2001-01-01 Print this article Print

As we enter 2001, an obvious gap between past fantasy and present reality is our lack of computers that care about telling the truth.

As we enter 2001, an obvious gap between past fantasy and present reality is our lack of computers that care about telling the truth.

The HAL 9000 computer in "2001: A Space Odyssey" became psychotic when it was ordered to conceal facts from users. The robots in Isaac Asimovs stories are incapable of disobedience; one experimental, empathetic model goes insane when ordered to tell people things that it knows will hurt them to learn. For decades, writers have assumed that the next generation of computers would have principles.

By contrast, the systems were still using are all too ready to lie to us, whether through error (say, by misreading a punched-card ballot), through repeating whatever falsehood they were last told (as in many cases of identity theft), or by showing less capacity than even a child has to know contradictory nonsense when they hear it (with innumerable examples of inconsistent input that produces, not a request for clarification, but terribly misleading results).

Perhaps I err in blaming the pace of technology for this weakness. Were capable of building hardware that knows the difference between "yes," "no" and "dont know." Were capable of writing software that uses such knowledge, as in many statistics packages.

Perhaps the fault is in the way that most applications are written—ultimately, in the way that most programmers are taught. Programmers arent indoctrinated to deal well with inconsistency, let alone deliberate misrepresentation. Theyre not taught, like any rookie police officer, to give people (or computers) room to betray themselves through failure to keep their lies straight.

As our systems deal more directly with the world around them, they need to learn to discern truth—and to preserve it.

Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developers' technical requirements on the company's evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter company's first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

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