The Computer Knows

By Henry Bagdasarian

Years ago when I heard these three words "the computer knows", I almost fell down to the ground from a complete shock, surprise and laughter. Once you understand who said these three words, why, and in what context, you might also fall down so you should grab a chair and sit tight before reading the rest of this story.

I was the Internal Auditor at a major credit card company right out of college. My job included auditing various processes and information systems. The major objective of any corporate internal audit is to identify critical risks facing the company and actions that would properly mitigate the identified risks. I can’t remember the specific system I was auditing at the time but I made an appointment with the system administrator to learn more about the system and identify the associated risks before submitting my audit report with my findings and recommendations to management.

During our meeting, I was asking specific questions regarding the system and at one point, I asked how the system processes certain transaction and the system administrator replied, "the computer knows" as if the computer had a mind of its own. Let me correct myself, the computer has a mind of its own, however, the computer processing logic is developed by a human programmer and documented to describe the logic behind the instructions given to the computer. So I rephrased my question by asking "how does the computer know and what is its logic?" The system administrator once again replied, "it just knows". At this point, I was ready to quit my job and get into a new career.

Knowing that these three words came from a technical person, I continue to wonder whether most people think like this system administrator by believing that computers have independent mind of their own as if they were created by themselves without human intervention, and, know exactly what to do without ever falling apart. The truth is computers are made by humans and are far from perfect. In fact, computers are as perfect as humans can be and some of us know well that we’re not perfect while the rest of us are in denial. As humans create the computer processing logic, many things can go wrong leading to computer errors such as:

a) the human logic or understanding of computer specific requirements can be wrong,
b) the defined human logic can be programmed incorrectly,
c) the programs may not be correctly documented for future reference and error correction,
d) program documentation may not be updated as programs are changed,
e) programming logic may not be tested to make sure it works as intended, and
f) computer users may not be trained well enough to understand the computer’s specific purpose and how to correctly use it leading to errors.

This is a very simplistic view of computers. However, once we understand not to blindly trust computers, we can stop saying "the computer knows" because "it just knows".

Return to the computer security page after reading "the computer knows."