Putting Our Trust (And Lights) In The Power of Machines

Larry Price
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Wednesday - January 07, 2009
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Our big blackout on Dec. 26 got me thinking about the story of John Henry. He was a “steel-driving man,” helping to build America’s railways following the Civil War.

As the legend goes, he was born with a hammer in his hand, and possessed great strength and endurance.

One day his life changed when a salesman arrived on the site showing off a new steam-powered drill that he claimed could outperform the best “steel-driving man.”

Predictably, John Henry and his team scoffed at the notion that their team could be out-worked and challenged the new machine. As the story goes, John Henry beat the machine, but died from exhaustion.

The ballads and legends about John Henry’s battle with the steam-powered machine ushered in the Industrial Age with proof that machines could do some things better than human workers.

John Henry was not the last human to challenge a machine.

Remember the chess master Garry Kasparov, perhaps the greatest chess master of the last 100 years? He won the world chess championship in 1985.

It was then that a group of scientist began to develop a computer that could play chess. In 10 years, Kasparov never lost a match. He was internationally famous, but in 1996 he was lured into a chess match with a machine developed by IBM called Deep Blue.The machine won.

Kasparov was infuriated by the defeat, and his promoters arranged a rematch with another computer, Deep Blue Junior, a more powerful Israeli computer that had won three world computer chess championships in a row.

Deep Blue Junior was able to analyze between 2 million and 3 million possible moves a second! Most chess masters can examine three or four moves a second. Still, Kasparov believed human beings had other advantages that would level the playing field.

On Super Bowl Sunday 2003, at the New York Downtown Athletic Club, another battle between man and machine began - a six-game match with a million-dollar purse. Millions of interested people watched on the Internet. Kasparov won game one, but had to settle for a draw in game two and lost game three. In the end he settled for a draw and lost the entire match.

The message was clear: When it comes to chess, at least, computers are simply better, faster and stronger. They don’t fatigue and they don’t get headaches, or suffer from a lack of sleep, or get hurt on the job, and they don’t choke under pressure from the critical public. They don’t worry about what the public or the press has to say about their performance, and they don’t make mistakes.

Management guru Tom Peters said it long ago: “Computer software is the forklift for the human mind.” Meaning any job that depends on a set of rules or broken-down, repeatable steps can and probably will be replaced by a machine.

So we all find an economy and society that has left the Agriculture Age (with the possible exception of our public education system, that still takes the summers off so farmers can use their children to harvest their crops), to the Industrial Age, with our millions of factory workers, to the Information Age and the dependency on computers.

What’s the point?

Simply put, Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) is run by a computer - a computer that is programmed to shut itself down if threatened by any conceivable environmental consequence, but not smart enough to turn itself back on responsibly without the assistance of human beings.


That answer will be furnished by the Public Utilities Commission in the immediate future. It also will entertain solutions, but none of them will satisfy the public because there is no perfect system available and, if there was, it would probably cost more than the public could afford.

We may need a new concept of providing electricity to the masses stuck on an island in the middle of the Pacific.

In any case, John Henry and Garry Kasparov must be smiling because it’s evident that, every now and then, machines fail too.

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