January 25, 2002 (Ira Pilgrim)


There is a great difference between knowing and understanding: you can know a lot about something and not really understand it.

Charles F. Kettering

The military now has what they call "smart bombs." Up until very recently, bombs have been dropped from airplanes and they exploded either when they hit the ground or at a certain altitude. These are now called "dumb bombs," and they are just as deadly as the smart variety. Those smart bombs are computer controlled and can home in on a pre-programmed target, with the help of Global Positioning Satellites(GPS).

To the military, something that can obey orders without question is considered to be smart. It is what they attempt to inculcate in their recruits: obedience. It does not conform to my idea of what the word "smart" signifies. I consider a computer, even a super computer, to be dumb, dumb dumb. Anything that is only capable of obeying orders is dumb. It takes very few smarts to be able to march in lock-step, to fire a gun, or to perform physical exercise of any kind. Smart is the ability to make complex judgments based on a large variety of factors and information. Computers are getting closer all of the time to being able to make complex decisions but, as any computer owner knows, they are far from being able to make judgments that a person of average intelligence can make, and even super computers can't compare with an intelligent human being.

Goethe wrote a ballad about the sorcerer's apprentice, which was set to music in 1897 by composer Paul Dukas and was made into a Mickey Mouse movie segment by Disney. It tells about a sorcerer who programmed (the word didn't exist when the story was created) a broom to fetch buckets of water. When the sorcerer was away, his apprenticed started the broom fetching water. However, he did not know the Stop command, so the broom kept bringing water until a lot of things were floating. Finally the sorcerer returned and stopped the broom,

At the time that The Sorcerer's Apprentice was written, it was fantasy; but not any more. Nowadays a pump can be made to bring water and it can be started and stopped with a simple switch. Using computer guidance, it can deliver a certain volume of water at certain times as well as obey commands as to when to start and stop. I have a number of them watering my garden.

When a computer stops performing the way that it should, every computer owner knows that you restart it, which clears the random access memory(RAM). So far as I know, you can't do that with a smart bomb. Even if you could, how would you know that something is wrong with the computer? You will know for sure when the bomb hits the wrong target or, even worse, when it hits your own troops.

I can imagine it now: The military has finally located Osama bin Laden. The have surrounded him and a large number of Al Quaida and Taliban troops. The commander decides to send in a smart bomb to wipe them out. As the generals watch the computer screen, they see that the missile is 20 miles from its target. Then a message appears on the screen: System Error TS987 Sorry.

In other words, calling an incredibly stupid thing smart doesn't make it smart. That doesn't matter to the military, which seems to believe that giving something a name makes it so. I remember when the army decided to give dignity to KP (Kitchen Police), so they renamed it "Mess Attendant." However, to the soldier who washed the pots and dishes, it was still KP, and it was still a pain in the ass.

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