Can They Ask the Computer Nicely?

My takeaway from the movies made of Arthur C. Clarke's novels 2001 and 2010: When you want your computer to do something, ask the computer nicely. (Or, like the HAL 9000, your computer might get homicidal on you.)

It appears that the time has come for someone, perhaps a judge, to ask the state's payroll computer whether it might be able to recalculate employees' paychecks. The intentions and abilities of the computer have emerged at the center of a controversy over whether Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger can reduce state workers' salaries to minimum wage until a new budget is approved.

The courts have said that Schwarzenegger has the right under the law to do just that. But another halted the change, citing uncertainty about whether the computer system could accommodate a change. (State Controller John Chiang, the computer's official handler, seems reluctant to ask the computer to do this, though Chiang's critics suggest he's as worried about public employee unions who oppose the governor's order as he is about what the computer in question might do). 

A ruling on the computer's capacities has been put off until late summer. One problem: I'm told that the payroll computer is old and does not speak (though the system, last redesigned in the '70s, seems to be of about the same vintage as the HAL 9000, a cinematic creation of 1968).

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