Faster Computers

by Barry Drogin

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To The Editor:

Mr. H. Jon Geis, a psychotherapist who claims that one of his functions is "getting the average human being to slow down," left his warm bath to write you a letter that puts him right back into hot water. He picks up on a phrase used in Andrew Pollack's "The Fantastic Stuff of New Computers" and proceeds to misinterpret the content of the words grossly, while displaying an ignorance of the uses and usefulness of computers that begs for refutation.

The phrase that Mr. Geis finds so contrary to his perception of increased "quality of life" is the ability of a computer to perform "trillions of calculations" per second. What possible use could that be, he asks.

The word "calculations" throws Mr. Geis. He, like many others, thinks that the mass-media phrase "calculations per second" refers to addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Actually, a more precise term would be "operations per second," of which the mathematic four are a small, essential but little used subset.

Mr. Geis will be surprised to learn that the bulk of the "operations" that computers perform are simplistic and seemingly trivial. One trivial task is moving a piece of information from one location in the computer to another. Many operations involve Boolean Algebra, the language of logic: "this AND that OR this," the answer of which is nothing more than TRUE or FALSE. Another trivial but crucial operation is, dependent on that TRUE or FALSE, picking one of two roads that lead to more trivial operations. So computer researchers and manufacturers are making machines that do trivial things faster and faster. What a waste!

Not exactly. These trivial tasks can in fact be quite useful.

In word processing, one chunk of data might be a huge document that you dictated to your secretary, and another might be a dictionary or catalog of grammatical rules. Looking up a word is a matter of data retrieval. Checking the spelling is a simple logical operation. Inserting the right spelling if the word is wrong, or leaving it alone if right, is a simple decision. A computer that took two days to read a letter and suggest corrections would be totally useless. A computer that can correct the spelling and grammar of a lengthy letter in thirty seconds, or as your secretary types (at so many words per minute), and then print out the letter with headings and neat columns, is very useful, and is currently used throughout the business world. Speed makes all the difference. A faster computer could serve more than one secretary at a time, so no one need wait for a turn.

In the world of science, one chunk of data might be experimental results, and another might be data predicted by theory. Compare and contrast in three months or in three hours? Find a pattern in a few days, or give up? Scientists are continually making bigger and bigger demands upon computers, and quicker and quicker machines are needed to meet those expectations.

Speed and size do not go hand in hand. There are many uses for small intelligent microprocessors --- in robotics, in communications, in medicine...even, for better or worse, depending on who you talk to, in video games.

Yes, Mr. Geis, faster computers help us predict the weather because they allow us to put satellites in orbit and receive pictures from them. Faster computers help us get to places faster by keeping airplanes from crashing into each other and helping then fly and land. With computers we can do more, have more and be more.

As to the bath that Mr. Geis left to write his letter, faster computers may have no effect upon his ability to get water into the tub, but, considering the extensive use of computers and computing components in the power industry, probably has some effect upon whether that water is warm or cold.

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Last Updated: August 4, 2007