TO COMPUTE, OR NOT TO COMPUTE


"Alice, Alice!" Something was gently shaking her. She opened her eyes. It was her sister. "I finished my paper, and am printing it now. I am so sorry you had to wait so long for me to finish. You were probably terribly bored, but I think you might like what I wrote."

"Oh, I wasn't bored. I had such a wonderful adventure inside the computer."

"What? Alice, you were asleep and dreaming!"

"Oh, I couldn't have been. It was so real. I met some very nice programs."

"You can't meet programs! You can only use them."

Alice thought about this for some time. "Maybe the computer and the programs get tired of being used. What if they decided not to compute one day?"

"Alice, computers can't think! My professor said 'The best thing about a computer is that it does exactly what you tell it to do, and the worst thing about a computer is that it does exactly what you tell it to do!' They blindly follow the instructions someone has given them," her sister replied.

"But how do we know they can't think?"

"They are not people. Only people, and maybe some animals, can think. Computers are just chips and wires and electrical things. People have personalities and feelings and...."

"Do characters in a story have personalities and feelings?" Alice interrupted.

"Well, of course they do, but what does that have to do with computers?"

"Can characters in stories think by themselves?"

"No, they only do what the writer writes. They are not the same as you and I in that respect."

"Then how are they different from a program that does only what a programmer writes?" asked Alice with a triumphant tone in her voice.

"That's different. You can't compare...."

"Can't programs learn? Can characters in stories learn?"

"Alice, this isn't a dreamland. Take a reality pill!" And her sister shook her head and turned to watch her story print.

Alice thought hard about all she had experienced. The thought occurred to her that maybe the inside of the computer was real, and her sister was the dream.

The printer finally stopped.

Alice looked at the last paragraph just before her sister took it out of the printer. It read "Alice looked at the last paragraph just before her sister took it out of the printer. It read 'Alice looked....'".



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