Technolog

Space. Some time in the future. Our hero, Capa, is out on the solar shield making repairs, when the ship suddenly begins to turn toward the Sun! The computer has resumed automatic control and he’s going to fry!

“Resuming computer control,” intones the honeyed voice of Icarus, the ship’s computer. “Negative Icarus, manual control!” barks our plucky heroine Cassie on the ship’s bridge. “Negative Cassie, computer control. Returning vessel to original rotation”.

Turns out that Icarus hadn’t gone murderously insane. There was a reason for its refusal to allow the humans control over their own ship: the oxygen garden was on fire, which is apparently a bad thing when you’re on a spaceship in the future. The humans hadn’t noticed but Icarus had.

So anyway, this isn’t a review of Danny Boyle’s recent film Sunshine, but a world in which you have to argue your case with a computer isn’t necessarily that far off. There are already plenty of systems like Icarus in the real world. The fly-by-wire computers in modern jets, for instance, are there specifically to filter out control inputs from the pilot that would put the aircraft in danger. Apparently, in aviation circles there’s a joke that it takes only one pilot and a dog to fly a modern commercial jet; the dog is trained to bite the pilot if he tries to touch anything.

Back in the prosaic world of the desktop computer, in the past month, three of my colleagues have been subjected to a computer doing the “right” thing at completely the wrong moment in the name of what it deemed to be urgent. Two of these were down to Vista and its terribly enthusiastic update-download regime, which happened right in the middle of the working day and necessitated a reboot, apparently out of nowhere, and left the PC inert and completely useless for the ten minutes the process needed.

It isn’t just operating systems doing it – applications are, too. News and features editor Barry Collins’ experience was a classic case of yes-okay-whatever-clicking in a hurry. Barry received an application pop-up box from Paint.NET, clicked OK because he was busy and didn’t want to be bothered, and off it went while he sat and fumed for the next few minutes, unable to do what he started the application up for in the first place.

Aside from anything else, there’s an argument here for unbidden pop-up dialog boxes to be banned from the programmers’ toolbox. They’re a massive pain in the backside and I can’t think of a single instance when I haven’t been at least mildly annoyed by one appearing in front of me while I was doing something else. They’re dangerous, too – you’re in the middle of typing when one pops up, you inadvertently type the shortcut key for the button labelled “Yes! Ruin my life NOW!”, and off it goes while you sit and scream. Pop-up dialogs should be kicked into the computing wilderness along with the GOTO statement, the paper clip (it looks like you’re writing a letter, would you like some irritation with that?), and that bloody dog that appears by default when you use XP’s search applet.

Windows XP and Vista’s System Tray notification bubbles are an attempt to reduce the irritation of dialog notifications, but somehow they don’t really work either. So, as arty-farty as it might sound, the time is approaching where we need to have what’s essentially a dialogue – in the sense of conversation, not box – with our computers. They have to damn well do as they’re told, but we can’t ignore their needs and they have to be able to let us know what they are. Otherwise, they’ll grind to a halt or, more likely, start siphoning off the contents of our bank accounts to a bloke in Kamchatka.

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