Reading messy writing: Xerox Parc, the venerable creator of key information technologies other companies made money from, has a solution to the handwriting recognition problem. This is the major glitch that led to the lampooning of Apple's Newton in Doonesbury, and it has generally made potential customers wary of the perennially just-about-to-explode market for so-called personal digital assistants. Xerox's concept is referred to as digital ink -- unrecognized scribbles, drawings, etc. stored as bitmaps. The actual recognition is then performed on the bit-mapped image, and using neural network technology, similar bitmaps are matched to queries. This is the Xerox proposal, explained at last month's show for Computer Human Interaction in Denver, Colo. The advantage here is that you don't have to translate scribbles into ASCII characters, which is beyond even the best technology -- much less one that would have to fit in a hand-held device.

"It's the Computer's Fault." That's the title of a paper written by professors Batya Friedman and Lynette Millett at Colby College. The paper is based on a survey of 29 male undergraduate computer science students, and it reveals that many people who design computer systems don't feel morally responsible for the damage that wayward, crashing computer systems cause. Some 83 percent attributed either decision-making and/or intentions to computers, and more than one-fifth explicitly held computers responsible for error. One surveyee, in a verbatim comment, blamed the user. "I think anyone who's pressing the button is responsible to know what's happening when they press the button."

Still, many acknowledged that the sense in which computers "choose" is fundamentally different from the way humans choose. "[The computer] can decide in a sense that somebody has programmed rules, which it follows, and, in that sense [the computer] chooses a course."

Said another: "It's deciding based on a very clear strict algorithm.... It's a decision, but not an open-ended one...."

Still, many agreed that blaming computers is absurd. "Let's say I was in the car and I ran over a dog. That'd be like me blaming the car for running over the dog. You can't blame an inanimate object."

Such surveys are no mere ivory tower exercise; as computer glitches and crashes become even more common than they are today, deciding who is to blame promises to be a fertile area for legal debate.

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