Computers and Responsibilities


I’m sure many of us have heard the excuse that some problem was because of a computer malfunction; it was the “computer” that did it, as if the responsibility was taken completely out of our hands. Yet as I think about it, I’ve heard this excuse less frequently in recent years, but I think it’s in for a comeback.

I recently returned from a trip to Redmond, where among other interesting things, I had an opportunity to visit the “Microsoft Home.” This is a tangible experiment allowing people to see what a home might look like in 5 to 10 years. Being able to walk through the home, and actually touch, see and feel the future makes it easier to visualize and then validate. If you should ever be given the opportunity to visit, take it.

Microsoft sees a future that includes wide use of RFID technologies. Microsoft believes that everything that has a Bar Code today will have an RFID tag in the future. They explore this scenario in a number of different ways. For example, by removing a bag of flour from the cupboard and placing it on the counter top, the home is able to sense this action by reading the tag. Based on the assumption that the reason the flour has been removed from the cupboard is that you want to cook something, it displays a list of recipes on the counter top that include flour and the other items you have in your kitchen. From this list the home owner can select a recipe. Another example is a washing machine that reads the RFID tags on clothes put in it and then sets itself to the appropriate wash cycle.

However, one application that is near and dear to most parents is to get your children to clean up their room. By using RFID to tag children’s toys, clothes, etc. coupled with a tag the marks the correct storage location it becomes easy to determine if a toy has been put away. But wait, there’s more! Presumably you can then tie priviledges to whether their room is tidy. For example, don’t let them watch TV, play video games etc. until their room is clean.

This sounds like nirvana: the end of nagging, screaming, fighting about cleaning up.

But what does this mean? Has a responsibility traditionally taken on by the parent been delegated to the computer? Is this delegation of responsibility or enforcement? Is it right or wrong? Certainly it makes the computer the “bad guy” as it will enforce it, so your children can scream at it and not you. But the parent does remain the policy maker. Is this separation of roles (policy maker/enforcer) helpful? It certainly sounds easier.

Unfortunately, unlike the touchable, feelable Microsoft Home these issues are hard to visualize and understanding their impact is elusive. All you can say right now is there’s going to be a lot more computer bashing coming in the future.


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