Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Buddy System

Short Story by Don D'Ammassa

A cautionary tale of computer systems destroying the world because we put too much faith in them. The idea of how they do this is a bit different, and good, but the explanation of what the computers do is complete gibberish and comes down to Magical Computers. And yet, there is a technobabble explanation anyway. Better to just admit it's practical magic.

I'm also not a fan of the fact that D'Ammassa names the character "Buddy" just so he can have a cutesy title/name for something. The titular computer system has no connection or thematic resonance in the buddy system we all had forced upon us for elementary school field trips. I don't mind cute names for things, but I like them to be relevant to the story or its themes. This story is called "The Buddy System" simply because it contains a System created by computer programer named Buddy.

And predicting elections with only 2 errors out of 1000 elections is absurd. The data doesn't exist for that quality of model. Maybe it only bugs me because I know a bit too much about polling data and election modeling, but it's one of far too many examples where the computers "extrapolate" data to a level of precision which simply can't exist. It's like he has never heard of Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions.

My big conceptual problem is two-fold:
  1. You can't predict the future so accurately because unavoidable measurement error is often more than enough to decide between radically different results.
  2. You can't "Interpolate" entirely new, precise information from data that wouldn't be part of the same equation. You physically cannot calculate someone's face from an image of the back of their head.

I've picked more than enough nits here, but the point is, something annoys me about this story every few paragraphs, making it very hard to enjoy.

The author (or, even more improbably the computer programming narrator) is also biased against nerds and our ability to communicate or know things about the real world. Given the readership of Analog, this seems like a mistake. It also stinks of bad 80's movie cliche.

All told, this is an obnoxious computer-induced-end-of-world story which exists purely to say that carpenters are smarter than scientists and policy wonks. Thankfully, the carpenter-wisdom doesn't save the day, but it does wrap up the story with an over-obvious moral. The only redeeming factor is that the last couple pages are oddly gripping despite my annoyances.

2 magical computer algorithms out of 5.

No comments: