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  • The “Arthur C. Clark” question: Can computers be appliances?

    Home » Forums » Outside the box » Fun Stuff » The “Arthur C. Clark” question: Can computers be appliances?

    • This topic has 16 replies, 4 voices, and was last updated 3 days ago.
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    #2394907

    Can computers be like a fridge or a radio, something that is plugged into a mains socket, one toggles the power switch to “ON”, or  uses some equivalent way to get it going, fiddles with the temperature control, and then just uses it, putting there perishable food and foodstuffs? Or be like a TV set? Or like a lamp?

    Towards the end of his life, I think it was the often technologically prescient science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke who posed the question — or at least the question he would have posed if the occasion called for it: Why can’t computers be appliances?

    I think that is a fine question, the consideration of which can lead to some interesting and even profound revelations. As looking at something from a new angle, or one seldom used, sometimes may take us to.

    To start this with my own rather sketchy idea: There may be a level of complexity where things that are even more complex cannot be appliances never, ever, because they will require that things be done to use them, or more precisely to have anything come out of them of use to us, that  are far more complex themselves than what a fridge or a lamp, or a car, for that matter, require on a day to day basis, to make them work properly for us. Below this limit there are many things, including true appliances. Above this limit are the computers, beetles, magnolias, foxes, the dynamics of the braided rings of Saturn, human beings. Maybe computers can be made more “user-friendly”, and indeed one can pretend that they are appliances and use them as such, but only to get unreliable results and repeated trouble of various kinds. And learn that this is inevitable with computers, because they are too complex to work as appliances. (*)

    What do you think? This thread is in the “Fun Stuff” forum, so don’t be shy.

    A stimulus to write something of your own might be found here:

    https://ubuntuforums.org/showthread.php?t=498163

     

    (*) Which begs the question: what is meant here by “complexity” and how is it measured?

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    • This topic was modified 1 week ago by OscarCP.
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    • #2394953

      of course these days the other question is : why are appliances computers?
      But I see a danger; would we consider AIs as appliances? Ah yeah there in lies a threat, trusting, where we should have extreme caution.

      🍻

      Just because you don't know where you are going doesn't mean any road will get you there.
      2 users thanked author for this post.
    • #2394964

      Call me “old fashioned”, but I’m not that old or lazy that I can’t set my thermostat down in the winter or up in the summer when I go to bed.  I certainly don’t need a refrigerator that tells me what I’m out of or getting low on, and I also don’t care for some hoodlum knowing or possibly having control over the things in my home.

      4 users thanked author for this post.
    • #2394979

      Wavy states: “But I see a danger; would we consider AIs as appliances? Ah yeah there in lies a threat, trusting, where we should have extreme caution.

      Using AI as an appliance? Every time you do a search with Google or any other search engine. Or when someone uses biometrics, such as a live picture of the user’s face, or by scanning a thumbprint, to log in to some device, or to unlock its screen.

      Although perhaps “tool” might be a better word. Meaning some device, including a manipulator of noughts and ones, a.k.a. “computer”, used to get a certain definite intended result.

      That brings me to something I consider interesting to mention: a knife is an extraordinary multi-use tool, the product of some 200,000 years of an evolution directed by human intelligence. But it is a tool, because it only works when wielded by a human, or by some mechanism controlled by a human. As a tool, it is simplicity itself, but to work it needs a human dexterous in its use: it can be so very simple, because all the complexity needed to make it work is in the person that uses it.

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    • #2395090

      Which begs the question: what is meant here by “complexity” and how is it measured?

      Complexity could be number of all possible states maybe? @OscarCP mentioned knife. Knife could have only one status – its a knife, its the same all the time no matter if you manupulate with it or not, its a knife.
      Knife = tool

      Light bulb has two states – on / off.
      Light bulb = appliance

      With PC, the number of states is infinite (or at least a very large number).
      Maybe some simple PLC can be considered as applience, but Im not the one, who could decide.

      I cant see where you aim, whats the conclusion if PC is considered appliance or not.

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    • #2395248

      Doriel, A “tool” is, as I see it, not just a knife, but also a computer (I explained that in an earlier comment) , except that in the case of the knife almost all the complexity is in the person who handles it. That person can do many, many, many different things with a knife, as can also do with a computer, unlike of with a fridge, or a lamp, where one can do just one, or at most very few intended useful things with them (one could murder someone hitting him over the head with a heavy lamp, not its intended use). So tools straddle the divide between appliances and the rest of all things people make, or could make use of. And all the other complex things, such as the ones I mentioned in my first comment and that are neither tools nor appliances: foxes, magnolias, people ….

      Quantifying “complexity” as the number of possible states (or rather, as its logarithm in base 2)  that a system can take, is how it is done in Information Theory, as well as in Thermodynamics and in Quantum Theory, where the latter two, are known as “entropy.”

      It could be how this concept might be used “as is” here, or in some way adapted to define the complexity of a system that is relevant to this discussion.

      For example, again as I see it now: In the case of the knife and the person wielding it, the two together are “the system” and the possible things that this system can do are huge in number.

      The person is both part of the system and also uses it, so this is a special kind of system, one with feedback, where the controller (brain) decides largely on its own (it is always conditioned by circumstances) what is going to be done next, then orders  and guides the execution of the required action as part of the person+knife system, using the sensory organs to rely to the brain (feedback) how the action is being executed, for this to further guide the hand using the knife, o modify the very goal being sought. Not all that different from using a computer, or flying a rocket to Mars, if it came to that, with many possible outcomes (e.g. in the case of the rocket, aborting the mission; landing on the Moon for repairs, or for a bit of Rest&Recreation; going further to inspect some asteroids before going back to land on Mars; once approaching Mars, deciding to set down here rather than there …). Because computer and rocket are both tools in the (real or figurative) hands of the person using them, a person that is also part of the system and contributing directly to is complexity.

      In this broader sense, the difference that puts things meant to be used by people and built and shaped by people: knife, computer, rocket on one side of the divide, and fridge, car, lamp, on the other side, is the number of things that can be done with them, which might be counted as the final states of the person+tool or appliance system. In the natural order of things, tools and appliances both involve a person using them. How many different things can be “final results” using either of them is very different with tools and appliances in both practical and, (dare I write it?) philosophical terms as well.

      So, as a result of all this reasoning prompted by your observations, I would say that besides the complexity of the system, there is also the complexity of what the artifact, tool or appliance, is meant to be used to do.

      If I am right, then things are more complicated now than when I started this thread.

      Well … that could be the entropy of this thread increasing all  by itself …

      Your move, Doriel, whenever you like to make it. And anyone else who would like to have a go at this: you are always welcome.

      Ex Windows user (Win. 98, XP, 7) since mid-2020. Now: running macOS Big Sur 11.6 & sometimes, Linux (Mint)

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      • #2395348

        Okay, the thread entropy is definatelly larger now 🙂

        That person can do many, many, many different things with a knife, as can also do with a computer, unlike of with a fridge, or a lamp, where one can do just one, or at most very few intended useful things with them

        With all respect, I tend to disagree little bit. I know, what you mean, knife is a usefull tool indeed, but you can do very lot of things with a fridge too – use it as an anchor for a boat, close someone inside it and use it as a shelter during bomb attack. My physics teacher on a high school really opened my eyes, I remember him telling me:
        “What is this for?”
        And he pointed to this kind of meter
        meter

        “To measure lentgh”, I said.
        “Anything else? Can it be used to measure temperature? The metal is shrinking and stretching. But we only use it in narrow range of temperatures, so the outcome is nearly accurate. Think about the quicksilver in the thermometer.”

        On the first sight for me, the knife has fewer possible states than the computer. My thought is about knife being “same all the time”, no matter if you cut bacon, or screw the screw. I mean forget about dimensions X, Y and Z, its all just rotation. Maybe that does not count as a state change?* The knife has still the same inner structure. Unlike the computer, which literally varies its inner structure : gates, charged condenser, memory content.

        Human and knife are definately system together. I would like to slow down now little bit, because its easy to get lost in thoughts (for me personally 😉 )

        In this broader sense, the difference that puts things meant to be used by people and built and shaped by people: knife, computer, rocket on one side of the divide, and fridge, car, lamp, on the other side, is the number of things that can be done with them, which might be counted as the final states of the person+tool or appliance system. In the natural order of things, tools and appliances both involve a person using them. How many different things can be “final results” using either of them is very different with tools and appliances in both practical and, (dare I write it?) philosophical terms as well.

        I agree with the “final state” count, that could be the scale for deciding, wheather is a tool or appliance. But as we both mentioned, even simple things can be used for complex outputs. So where is the border? Is it human/being that makes the difference? Could be. If we take human out of the system, the rock remains rock and the knife remains the knife.
        But computer without human can do things on its own. Or cant it? Still, the human needs to turn the PC on, or create the program at first! So computer without human is worthless, being the same level as knife. Maybe? 🤔
        My thought corresponds with what you wrote:

        except that in the case of the knife almost all the complexity is in the person who handles it.

        For me, the best appliance/tool/system/everything of all is universe. Universe can create living beings, like we create computers 😉 if there s no universe, there is no human. If there is no human, there is (probably) no computer.
        Things are getting more and more complicated indeed. I would like to continue this conversation, if you are interested, @OscarCP.

        *everything in macroworld can do that, thats why I do not consider rotation as a state change. Maybe I am mistaken.

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    • #2395250

      Wavy states: “But I see a danger; would we consider AIs as appliances? Ah yeah there in lies a threat, trusting, where we should have extreme caution. ”

      Using AI as an appliance?

      Oh Oscar you pick on me a lot 😯😁 but i think u get me 😉

      🍻

      Just because you don't know where you are going doesn't mean any road will get you there.
      • #2395253

        Wavy: You might say that; I couldn’t possibly comment.

        Ex Windows user (Win. 98, XP, 7) since mid-2020. Now: running macOS Big Sur 11.6 & sometimes, Linux (Mint)

        MacBook Pro circa mid-2015, 15" display, with 16GB 1600 GHz DDR3 RAM, 1 TB SSD, a Haswell architecture Intel CPU with 4 Cores and 8 Threads model i7-4870HQ @ 2.50GHz.
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    • #2395572

      Doriel,

      By all means,let’s continue this conversation.

      I’ll be back with more to say about this, but let me quickly point out a statement I’ve made already about the many unintended other uses of an appliance that you touched upon in your latest comment:

      That person can do many, many, many different things with a knife, as can also do with a computer, unlike of with a fridge, or a lamp, where one can do just one, or at most very few intended useful things with them (one could murder someone hitting him over the head with a heavy lamp, not its intended use)

      The example of the lamp come to me remembering an actual murder where one was used, that happened  in my then home town and shook up the population when the details came out.

      Ex Windows user (Win. 98, XP, 7) since mid-2020. Now: running macOS Big Sur 11.6 & sometimes, Linux (Mint)

      MacBook Pro circa mid-2015, 15" display, with 16GB 1600 GHz DDR3 RAM, 1 TB SSD, a Haswell architecture Intel CPU with 4 Cores and 8 Threads model i7-4870HQ @ 2.50GHz.
      Intel Iris Pro GPU with Built-in Bus, VRAM 1.5 GB, Display 2880 x 1800 Retina, 24-Bit color.
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    • #2395605

      And now I am back.

      Doriel, the idea of the number of states to determine the complexity of a system defined as the amount of information needed to determine it, is closely related to the ideas of entropy and information in Thermodynamics, Quantum Mechanics and Communications Theory. For example in Thermodynamics:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boltzmann%27s_entropy_formula

      In statistical mechanics, Boltzmann’s equation (also known as Boltzmann–Planck equation) is a probability equation relating the entropy S, also written as SB, of an ideal gas to the multiplicity (commonly denoted as Omega or W), the number of real microstates corresponding to the gas’s macrostate (its current temperature, pressure, volume, density):

      S = kB log(W)

      where kB is the Boltzmann constant (also written as simply k and equal to 1.380649 × 10−23 Joule/Kelvin degree.

      Notice the similitude, after a certain number of mathematical manipulations, with Shannon’s formula of the information content in messages consisting of either noughts and ones, or more generally with a number N of symbols (i.e. letters) as shown in full detail here:

      http://faculty.poly.edu/~jbain/physinfocomp/lectures/03.BoltzGibbsShannon.pdf

      Those details aside, it is all about the total number of states a physical system can take, much as in what we are discussing here: how many it may need to have to be considered too complex to be an appliance.
      So this is a discussion that can be taken as far as one may like to, or be able to keep up with.

      Now, instead of looking at these grand interrelated structures of abstract thought, maybe we could concentrate on exchanging ideas and information on how far can computers go towards becoming so user-friendly that we can still tell them from ordinary appliances, but it is really hard to do so, because of how little work they may demand of the user to use them compared with those of today, on one hand, and on how far might computers go along becoming so super-user friendly that they start doing the thinking for their users. And even on how close that could get us to the full-Skynet.

      While we are still here, in Fun Stuff, here are some profound things that are fun to hear about, particularly when talked about by the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli:

      https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=carlo+rovelli+youtube&view=detail&mid=D2AF3727C965D25B3CD9D2AF3727C965D25B3CD9&FORM=VIRE

      Ex Windows user (Win. 98, XP, 7) since mid-2020. Now: running macOS Big Sur 11.6 & sometimes, Linux (Mint)

      MacBook Pro circa mid-2015, 15" display, with 16GB 1600 GHz DDR3 RAM, 1 TB SSD, a Haswell architecture Intel CPU with 4 Cores and 8 Threads model i7-4870HQ @ 2.50GHz.
      Intel Iris Pro GPU with Built-in Bus, VRAM 1.5 GB, Display 2880 x 1800 Retina, 24-Bit color.
      Waterfox "Current" and (now and then) Chrome. also Intego AV and Malwarebytes for the Mac.

      • #2395692

        Those details aside, it is all about the total number of states a physical system can take, much as in what we are discussing here: how many it may need to have to be considered too complex to be an appliance.

        I would like to make a statement, that if the total number of states is finite, it can be considered as appliance. If the number of states cannot be numbered infinite, thats beyond appliance. Does it make sense to say, that system with possibly infinite number of states is also unpredictable?
        I would like to add, that even extremely large sets can be finite. So it doesnt mean, that extremely complex something cannot be considered as appliance.

        I like the video you shared. Immediatelly my attention was attracted, when Rovelli said: “The problem is, that we always get the wrong question”. I bet you know Douglas Adams and its Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 🙂
        They try to find the answer to “the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.” and they give this task to the “deep thinker”.
        After milion years, the thinker says, that the answer is 42. But what is the question? 🙂

        we could concentrate on exchanging ideas and information on how far can computers go towards becoming so user-friendly that we can still tell them from ordinary appliances

        how far might computers go along becoming so super-user friendly that they start doing the thinking for their users. And even on how close that could get us to the full-Skynet.

        There is so much to say about this. The very beginning of computing, including Abakus, was to ease our work, especially calculations. So we might say, that tool is used to ease physical work, computers on the other hand were made to ease us calculations.
        Even today, computers cant do physical work, certainly, they can perform actions with tools or appliances attached. Todays level of computing is amazing and we can achive things, that were unimaginable in the past.
        AI/computer, that thinks for its user can be quite.. complicated, scary? Many movies and books asked this question:
        If something predicts your future and then tells its prediction to you, are you influenced by that so strongly, that it will became true? So even if the prediction is wrong, it will eventually happen?

        One of the universes principle is, that we cant really tell what would happen, if we did otherwise than we did. I mean – I took the red pill. What would happen if I didnt? I will NEVER know. Did it make any difference at all? It is simply impossible to evaluate “whatifs”.

        I would say, that thinking instead of user will definatelly cross some line. When crossed this line, the computer could “think”: OK, now I think instead of user, so there is no need to have user anymore. and thats where Skynet comes to our mind 😉
        But not only Skynet. CLU in Tron movie. Cassandra in Red Dwarf. All predictive AIs turned evil to us. Prophet from Matrix could be also example.

        We all somehow feel, that predicting future is cool but also its like playing woth fire and we could not know, what we will find.
        In some ways, we are witnessing user-friendly algorythms, that we meet on daily basis – google search engine tries to guess your input everytime you visit its website. Map navigation suggests you to go home every time you open the app. DuoLingo tries to convince you to continue your 3-day streak.
        Its all around us and I find it amazing! I think the algorythm is as evil as its programmer. We should not forgt about Asimovs laws of robotics.

        Lines above are not accurate mathematical formulas, its just the metaphysics im thiking about. Thanks for this conversation, I would like to continue.

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    • #2395779

      (one could murder someone hitting him over the head with a heavy lamp, not its intended use)”

      Why did we both have this thought?? 😲

      🍻

      Just because you don't know where you are going doesn't mean any road will get you there.
      • #2395839

        I was more worried about the knife example, that we used in the beginning 😁

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    • #2395780

      Doriel, you have touched on several different things, so it is more work for me to get to all of them, by I’ll try:

      Concerning the future, what can be known about it beforehand and whether there can be ways to see the future, to receive information from it as to what will happen, the subject of speculation for thousands of years (all in the past!), there is among those videos with Carlo Rovelli, in the page of the URL link in my previous comment, one about “the illusion of time”, that is worth watching.

      The use of AI algorithms is quite pervasive now, mostly in benign, well-defined applications that can be described, very generally, as involving pattern recognition. This can be the pattern of the key words one uses to do a Web search, or of key points in a face to match it with the person who has this face.
      I have been looking into using a neural network myself, to distinguish things I would like to be found on the Moon by analyzing maps of its gravity field looking for signs, in particular of very large lava tubes, recognizing them among other masses, or empty spaces, of rock that are also detected because they, same as those tubes, have a different gravity pull than the rest. And, even more recently, to separate the effect that large and dangerous tsunami crossing the sea towards populated land have on the concentration of free electrons in the ionosphere — because of the pressure waves they create as they lift and lower the water surface, that then travel upwards for hundreds of kilometers — from other waves and blobs of different electron density that are mixed with them, as a way to “see” the tsunami and maybe give early warnings of its approach.

      I put such AI applications in the category of “scientific instruments”, that are a variety of tools.

      Now, about things with infinite number of states: my understanding is that they are not allowed to exist, according to what is known, and some of what is guessed at, but seriously, from quantum physics.

      An elementary particle can have many, but finite, quantum states, particularly numerous when it is interacting with others to form atoms, molecules, things like you and me. But these particles, molecules, etc., no matter how large the overall object formed with them, are always finite in number.  And a finite number of particles, each  with a finite number of states, makes for a total finite number of states as well.

      One detail here is interesting: one of the states of a particle is its position. So, if a particle could be in any of infinitely many points, even when they are all vey close to each other, does this not mean that it can have infinitely many states?

      Well here is where what is know from quantum physics must take a seat and what is guessed at, but seriously guessed at, must take the floor:

      According to what is guessed at, but seriously, space-time is not continuous, so there is no “space-time continuum” : sorry Star Trek. No, it is made of unimaginably small tiles of time and space. So, according to this, a particle can only occupy one of all numerable positions in a given finite volume of space — and current thought is that the whole Universe, while enormously large, it is also finite. So the possibility of a particle having infinite states when counting all its possible positions in the Universe, can also be ruled out.

      So, where does this leave us?

      Doriel, and anyone else that might be interested: what do you think?

      Ex Windows user (Win. 98, XP, 7) since mid-2020. Now: running macOS Big Sur 11.6 & sometimes, Linux (Mint)

      MacBook Pro circa mid-2015, 15" display, with 16GB 1600 GHz DDR3 RAM, 1 TB SSD, a Haswell architecture Intel CPU with 4 Cores and 8 Threads model i7-4870HQ @ 2.50GHz.
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      • #2395813

        The “infinite state system” topic touches on central theorems and definitions of computer science due to Alan Turing:

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turing_completeness

        To wit: his “Linear Bounded Automaton Complete”; and his “Universal Computer” that can solve infinite problems in infinite time using an infinite amount of data, including programmed instructions — all of which they read from a tape, that they may also write to, modifying the programming and data, here and there — and can solve any problem smaller (finite) too, and faster (in finite time). But these are not infinite-state machines. They just take in and process one thing at the time, for as long as it takes.  With really big and long-lasting uninterruptible power supplies.

        The potentially infinite complexity is all in the tape.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turing_machine#Computational_complexity_theory

        Or maybe there can be infinite-state machines, but won’t be Turing machines, the basic idea of a computer, and even if they could exist, they would be, as seen from the outside, operationally indistinguishable (isomorphic) from finite-state Touring machines:

        https://cs.stackexchange.com/questions/49163/can-a-turing-machine-have-infinite-states

        Of course, all of the above and all I’ve previously written, in my very unauthoritative opinion.

        Ex Windows user (Win. 98, XP, 7) since mid-2020. Now: running macOS Big Sur 11.6 & sometimes, Linux (Mint)

        MacBook Pro circa mid-2015, 15" display, with 16GB 1600 GHz DDR3 RAM, 1 TB SSD, a Haswell architecture Intel CPU with 4 Cores and 8 Threads model i7-4870HQ @ 2.50GHz.
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        • #2395963

          I forgot to add that infinite-state computer machines are a mathematical, theoretical thing that can only exist if spacetime is continuous and, therefore, a continuum (Start Track fans rejoice), not if it is discrete, made of unthinkably small 3-D tiles with each edge measuring one Planck length that is, in meters, equal to 0.136 preceded by 34 zeros (rejoice not).

          Ex Windows user (Win. 98, XP, 7) since mid-2020. Now: running macOS Big Sur 11.6 & sometimes, Linux (Mint)

          MacBook Pro circa mid-2015, 15" display, with 16GB 1600 GHz DDR3 RAM, 1 TB SSD, a Haswell architecture Intel CPU with 4 Cores and 8 Threads model i7-4870HQ @ 2.50GHz.
          Intel Iris Pro GPU with Built-in Bus, VRAM 1.5 GB, Display 2880 x 1800 Retina, 24-Bit color.
          Waterfox "Current" and (now and then) Chrome. also Intego AV and Malwarebytes for the Mac.

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