Do machines know?


Did you ever notice how something you’re going to replace starts misbehaving? You might go buy a new car, but before you pick it up your old car’s transmission falls out.


Computers do not have souls. They do not have minds. They are electronic devices that process ones and zeros to accomplish a task that the programmer assigned. They do not have emotions. They cannot act out.

Or can they?

At my office, for the past three years or so I’ve been using my own MacBook Pro as my computer. The firm bought a Mac mini about six or seven years ago, but its inability to keep up with the increasing demands of new operating systems and other applications meant the Mac mini needed to be retired. I don’t specifically recall why the firm didn’t buy a new Mac. I just know I started using my own laptop. It served me very well over those years.

This week the firm purchased a new 13″ MacBook Pro. This laptop will stay here (unless it goes with me to court or a trial, something like that) and will not travel home with me as my older laptop did on occasion. The new MacBook Pro arrived yesterday afternoon, and I’ve spent most of today moving the necessary form files, downloading applications, etc. to get it ready to roll. It was a simple enough experience (with a couple speed bumps here and there—which I’ll discuss in another post).

As I’m working on this project, wouldn’t you know that my older laptop (which is sitting next to the new one since it has lots of information I need to transfer) began acting a little flaky? All of a sudden, it was crashing. I started up in repair mode and ran a disk utility, and the drive needed some significant repairs. The utility repaired the drive just fine (so it reports), and now the laptop seems to be just fine.

Was my 15″ MacBook Pro reacting to being replaced? (It shouldn’t—it’s going to become the main computer the family uses at home, which I’d consider to be a promotion.) I feel silly even asking the question.

When it comes to coincidence, weird things, and the like I have the mind of a scientist. I don’t believe in ghosts, angels, etc. I believe in data that can be reproduced. I do not believe that my laptop was reacting to its “replacement.”

But then, just for a moment, I start to wonder. This is not the only time I’ve observed this sort of thing. This month we replaced our dishwasher at home. It was about 11 years old, and it began leaking small amounts of water on the floor. We figured out it was coming from behind a lower panel above the baseboard, but couldn’t figure out why. Still, given the appliance’s age my wife and I figured it was time to replace it. We went off to Home Depot, found one that met my wife’s requirements, and placed the order.

A few days before the new dishwasher was to arrive and be installed, the old one started really leaking. Water was literally pouring over the lower panel onto the floor. We stopped using it, reverted to paper plates and plastic cups where possible, and otherwise washed dishes by hand. Was our old dishwasher getting even? Or is it just my imagination?

I also recall once when I was going to replace my car as its lease was running out. On my way home from work, I stopped at a local pizza joint to pick up a pie to take home. When I walked out to the parking lot, my left front tire was flat as a pancake. In 30 years of driving, I have had only two other flat tires. Once when I was forced off the road by some nut and I scraped my side wall along a broken curb, and once when someone took a screwdriver to my tire. I don’t get random flat tires.

After putting on the spare, I went home and enjoyed my slightly cool pizza. The next day I took the bad tire to a tire shop. That particular car had a full size spare, so the shop was able to look at the flat tire in situ. (Sorry, I just felt like throwing in some Latin.) They filled it with air and submerged it in a tank of water to look for bubbles—a telltale sign of a leak.

There were no bubbles. The tire was perfectly fine, and for the few weeks that I still had the car it held the air with no problems at all. (In fact, the chap I sold the car to never once mentioned anything about any tire problems.)

Did my car know it was going to be replaced? Was this merely happenstance?

I’m reminded of a few lines from Ian Fleming’s novel Goldfinger:

Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time is enemy action.



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