Debates Significance of Computing

The Economist’s website hosts well-conceived online debates on topics ranging from whether religion is a force for good (75% of readers voted no) to whether promoting math and science is the best way to stimulate future innovation (74% said yes).

The website is currently putting on a debate on computing — whether it is (or isn’t) “the most significant technological advance of the 20th century.”

Arguing the “Pro” side might seem pretty much a slam dunk, and it is, sort of. But the proposer, technologist Peter Cochran, brings up a few points that gives his statement an edge:

“Even farming and food production are computer controlled, and robots manufacture most of our goods and continually adjust the environment of our lives to ensure we enjoy a comfortable existence. Moreover, they do this to a precision, quality and consistency unimaginable even 25 years ago.

Like it or not, our existence is now in the hands of machines.”

Here are some of the points made on the “Con” side. The man doing the rebutting is Vaclav Smil, a Distinguished Professor in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (Science Academy):

“Scientific literacy, numeracy and comprehension skills have been declining as a direct result of fractured e-communication and a gradual loss of ability or readiness to read anything longer than a website paragraph (many have made this point, but Hal Crowther’s essay in the summer 2010 edition of Granta stands out).

. . . Replacing all work by computer-driven processes is patently a most undesirable dream while masses of people are already unemployed; and the e-dreamers forget that not everybody has the intellectual endowment to run consulting companies or to retail stories of e-nirvana.”

What do you think? You can cast a vote: the website is still accepting “comments from the floor” and votes on the motion. As of today, 74% of voters said yes, they agree with the motion. The winner will be announced on Friday, October 29.

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