Since 1982, I have been struggling with notion that computers may not be all powerful. In the early years, I was naive to think that computers could do everything and anything. AIs smarter than Einstein, the whole nine yards. All it required was fast enough hardware and clever enough software. But when I actual got a real job in the summer of ’82, I found that the reality of the computer world was a lot different than what I thought. I was hired to program computers. Great, a chance to make some money and learn those valuable skills that a world class hacker needs to control the world.
You see, in the world of Apple IIs and 8 MHz IBM PCs, you learn pretty quickly what a computer does well and what it doesn’t because there not a lot that it can do. My boss, god bless him, was a quiet, thoughtful man. He knew computers and he knew business. He had a good sense of what a computer could do and took on projects that had a hope of succeeding and even being profitable. So, I had the good fortune of working on an interesting project that was just at the fringe of the high frontier: speech processing. (For $5/hr, no joke.)
Now, as I mentioned before, computers love numbers. Speech to a computer is just a lot of numbers. About 5,000 per second in my case. These numbers came from a sound card that I had built just for this project. All it had on it was an amplifier, filter and an analog to digital converter. You plugged in a microphone and put the card into the Apple II’s expansion slot and you got numbers galore.
We called it the “Flying Duck.” My boss called it “Visual Speech Aid.” The mission was to give deaf children a tool they could use to learn how to speak. A noble enterprise and one well suited to my, then, lofty ideals. The child would speak into the microphone and the duck would fly across the screen leaving a trail that would indicate what the pitch of the child’s voice had been. This could be compared to a reference pattern the teacher had entered previously that the child tried to match. The kids were using it to see and learn how there voice sounded.
Well, with the grace of a flying turkey, the duck would lurch across the screen demonstrating the limits of real-time speech processing on an Apple II. But it worked. Kids loved it. Teachers loved it. My boss loved it. I thought it was a piece of crap. A collection of custom hardware, 6502 assembly language and Basic. Not the nice clean structured Visual Basic of today but the lousy goto ridden Basic of yester-year. There went my innocence. Never again did I dream about the ultimate program.
The moral of the story is that if you got numbers and a well defined use for them: a computer will do a good job for you. Neural nets and fuzzy logic just isn’t going to cut it. It’s the likes of pr0n (pictures that are just numbers that you can get off on) and MP3s (numbers that you can rock to) that rule in the new cyber reality. There just no place for a kid and his dream.