The Rage Against the Machines

When users encounter software that is too human-like, they respond to it like they sometimes do to annoying people. No one wants to work alongside a paranoid or neurotic computer that asks, "Are you sure? Have you changed our mind?" about every step you take.

A survey conducted recently in Britain revealed a shocking social phenomenon: Innocent computers are abused, verbally and sometimes physically, by their users on a daily basis. The new survey confirmed the findings of a previous study, conducted in 2001, in which it was revealed that one in every four computers takes a physical beating from its British owner, who is generally perceived as cold and collected.

The first response to the survey is ridicule. Is there anything dumber than hitting a machine? Does sending your computer's mother to hell help you find the document that was erased? Although the answers to both questions are, of course, no, it is surprising to find out just how many users resort to this strategy. The phenomenon is so widespread, it even has a name - "PC rage" - and the anger is uncontrollable: According to the survey, two in every four Britons are in the habit of angrily smashing a fist down on their keyboard in an effort to cause the computer "to do something."

In recent years, hundreds of scientists have been working on ways to overcome the phenomenon, which stems from profound frustration, by making computers more human. The assumption on which these efforts are based is that it is difficult for people to communicate with an emotionless machine and therefore a computer with human-like characteristics will be a more pleasant computer. A brief review shows, however, that much of the software currently on the market is overly human, making some of it so intolerable that the only possible response to its actions is to scream helplessly in the direction of the monitor while uncontrolably smashing the keyboard into bits.

The starkest example of human-like software are the anti-virus programs, which serve as digital security guards posted at the entrance to the computer. Every file that wants to enter is required to assume the position - hands raised and legs spread - and wait for the guard to frisk it and scan it for dangerous viruses. Like real-life metal detectors, those of the anti-virus programs are not immune to errors either. Sometimes they sound alerts for no reason; and sometimes armed terrorists get through the door.

The problem starts when the software begins to behave like a guard who has been through a trauma. This happens, for the most part, with recently installed anti-virus programs. They are still green in the field and suspect everyone; every file is a potential saboteur; and their paranoia makes using the computer intolerable.

Another type of software that exhibits a well-known human characteristic - revenge - is the firewall. This security software checks the electronic transmissions relayed to and from the computer and hunts out attempts at unauthorized infiltration. Many firewall programs turn out to be infuriating, and many users tend to uninstall them after a short while. But they take revenge. Sometimes, when they are removed from the computer, they leave behind an innocent definition that informs the computer to shut all its gates: From now, not a single bit of data is allowed in or out.

The creators of the third movie in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy developed a way of moving 200,000 digital characters across the screen in one of the film's most spectacular battle scenes. To create a realistic battle scene, the program that controlled the characters allowed each to take decisions in an intelligent, almost human manner. But there was a problem: The human-like characters made an extraordinary decision - they fled the battlefield. "For two years, our biggest problem was that we were unable to make the computer stupid enough to stop the characters from running away," said Richard Taylor, the man who wrote the code for the software.

Microsoft tried in the past to make its word-processing program, Word 97, more human-like. It added an application named "Clippy" - in keeping with its paper-clip form - whose sole purpose was to try to guess what the user was about to do and what problem he had encountered. The aggravation levels aroused worldwide as a result of Clippy's pestering were unprecedented.

Clippy behaved like an annoying waiter who doesn't stop asking questions. Every time you shut him down, he would pop up again; each time you were sure you had answered all his questions, he found another issue to discuss with you.

Microsoft did away with Clippy in its subsequent version of Word, admitting that the attempt to make the program more human-like had been a dismal failure.

The truth is, the attempt wasn't a failure at all. Clippy was simply too human, with his infuriating humanness expressed in an uncompromising will to help, when all the average user wants is for the computer to leave him alone.

Perhaps this is the very point in a nutshell: When users encounter software that is too human-like, they respond to it like they sometimes do to annoying people. No one wants to work alongside a paranoid or neurotic computer that asks, "Are you sure? Have you changed our mind?" about every step you take.

All we need is a piece of metal with some silicon that knows how to do what it is told when it is told.