(Dr. S.M. Moin Qureshi) The toughest decision a purchasing official has to encounter is when he is about to buy a machine designed to re­place him. The computer which is essentially a machine has made man a tool-using ani­mal. It has, on the one hand, solved many problems, but has given rise to many, on the other. The automation technology, to which we cannot and should not shut our doors, has an abiding tendency of creat­ing unemployment. Increasing the use of com­puters in commerce and industry has fa­cilitated managerial functions and en­hanced productivity which has enabled us to keep ourselves attuned to the present day advancements. But, there is no denying the fact that computers can solve all kinds of problems, except for the un­employment problem they create.

I arrived at this conclusion when, some time back, I saw a TV report that Japan has made a robot type computer that would work as guides for the tour­ists at various historical sites and places of interest. My belief in this effect was further strengthened when, the other day, I visited the silk factory of a friend of mine. The operational part of the building was neat, clean, cool, and lighted. All mechani­cal operations were computerized as a consequence of which very few employ­ees were seen here and there. The new name for “workers” was ‘technicians.’ About three decades ago, this same fac­tory employed several hundred workers. The present calm and serene atmosphere in and around the factory reminded me of the hectic activity of the ’70s. In any case, a Western scholar rightly contended, “One machine can do the work of fifty or­dinary men. No machine can do the work of an extraordinary man.”

The use of computers in public and pri­vate sector organizations is a welcome step. It replaces the outmoded manual system which is time-consuming, labor-consuming, and money-consuming. There should be no doubt now that computer boosts up efficiency. However, the effi­ciency of the computer itself depends on sev­eral factors among which correct feeding (‘Garbage in, garbage out”) and regular supply of power are of vital importance.

Computers come to a stand-still with power breakdown which, if continued ab­normally, results in “nervous break-down” too. Courtesy WAPDA and K-Electric, we re­ceive recurring shocks of both (power and nervous break-downs). However, hard­-bitten as w% are – we still survive.

PIA has entered the computer age much earlier and claims to have improved its ground performance as well. But you enter any reservation office and more of­ten than not, you will find the staff twid­dling their thumbs. You ask them about the problem and they would reply, “The system is down.” The reply downs your own spirits also. I faced a similar situation in Lahore in July, last. I approached the PIA’s reservation office to get my return ticket confirmed. I found that the office was only technically open and the staff was only physically present. Visitors were roaming about frantically and working counters were giving a deserted look. It was informed that due to power failure the work was suspended. In stifling heat, while the machines were resting, the men were panting. The unpleasant situation per­sisted for about an hour-and-a-half where­after the work could be resumed. As the machines regained refulgence, human faces reflected radiance.

In the famous words of Marshall McLuhan, the new electronic indepen­dence recreates the world in the image of a global village. However, with rising de­pendence on electronics, the real change is not that computers will begin to think like men, but that men will begin to think like computers. The problem of the past was that men became slaves. The prob­lem of the present is that men have be­come robots. Computer-operated robots have already replaced men for several unproductive manual tasks.

The Japanese have gone a step ahead. They have put some personality into the vending machines that have re­placed the office tea lady and her trolley. A company has produced a tea-vending machine that talks to the passers-by. “I’m a vending robot, a tea girl,” it says, “Let’s talk.” Equipped with a microcomputer, a laserdisc, a TV monitor, and a printer, it can dispense eight kinds of tea, show you a short program about tea cultivation and processing, printout menus and play video games. And every time it takes you money, a smiling girl pops onto the screen to say. “Thank you very much.” Men have thus become the tools of their tools.

Computers are taken as a symbol of accuracy. In America, a woman com­plained to her husband about their new computer-generated income tax program. “Why won’t the computer just accept what I enter?” she snarled. “Why does it demand justification and verifica­tion of every item? Why won’t this fool machine believe me?”

“It’s a computer, honey,” replied her husband. “Not a husband.”

However, computers to commit horrible mistakes. Someone said, “To err is human, but to really foul things up re­quires a computer.” In London three years ago, I became a target of this well-judged proposition when my freshly purchased ticket of the tube (underground train) was rejected by the slot of the electronic isola­tors as a used one. I had to be stranded for quite some time. A white-skinned offi­cial was adamant to charge me for the sec­ond time, but his boss, a black one, was considerate enough to allow me to pass from the side door. It was all the more in­triguing that the same ticket was accepted by another machine when I caught a con­necting train a few minutes later.

Surprisingly, computers get ‘cor­rupted’ as well. Only last week, when I com­plained to my publisher as to why the print­outs of the text of my book bore new mis­takes (after rectification of the previous ones), he apologized saying, “Due to virus, the computer has developed corruption.” I had to cope up with the answer. Obviously, when computers are being required to per­form human tasks, why should we expect them to be corruption-free?