Saturday, December 29, 2012

Twenty Questions

    Communication technology has come a long way from the tin cans connected with string and the party line and the rotary dial to the modern wonders of computerized answering programs in place almost everywhere today. Now, the computer will dutifully answer your call after the informative warning that “This call may be monitored” [In other words you may have an eavesdropper listening in, so mind what you say.]
    Next comes an array of eliminators designed to find out why you called: “For directions, press 1; For hours, press 2”. Then the round of ‘Ifs’, “If you want Mr. Jones, press 3; if you want Mrs. Jones, press 4; If you want Ms. Jones, press 5” and so on until you are so exhausted listening to the possibilities the computer has imagined for you none of which are correct, you exasperatedly press ‘0’ hoping a live person will rescue you whereupon you are advised, “you have made an incorrect entry. Please call back later.” [Click]

    At this point you realize you could have dressed, driven to their location, talked to a live person and got an answer in less time than you wasted trying to call.

    A radio show in the ‘40s (and a parlor game still) called “Twenty Questions” had a group of panelists try to identify a hidden object or secret word by asking a series of questions about the nature of the ‘unknown’. Is it, “animal, vegetable or mineral” or, “Is it bigger than a breadbox” and through a series of questions eliminate what it wasn’t to try to identify what it was.

    [For any mathematicians reading this, the elimination sequence is a binary divide and conquer dichotomic algorithm which after twenty stages could eliminate more than a million objects (2^20)]

    As a parlor game this might be an enjoyable pastime for some — as a way of doing business, it stinks!

    In the 1957 film, “Desk Set”, efficiency expert Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy) was contracted to computerize a TV network’s research department supervised by Bunny Watson (Katherine Hepburn). It didn’t take long for him to realize that Bunny and her researchers had more answers at the tip of their experienced brains than he had in his whole computer.

    So, why are we forced to answer twenty questions when one experienced, professional call taker could, in a trice, direct a caller almost immediately to the correct person in the correct department or answer any of a number of questions the computer hasn’t got the foggiest notion about?

Communication technology has advanced
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Communication hasn’t
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