Computer Says No

In a classic Little Britain-episode, a hospital receptionist suggests absurd, even horrible, treatments to patients. According to the receptionist, a five year-old girl has an appointment for a hip replacement, but her mom says she is supposed to have her tonsils removed – to which the receptionist (played by David Walliams) only replies “Computer says no”. Between the real-world people and their various ailments, and the rigidity of the computer system that always says no, the receptionist invariably sides with the latter.

The same phenomenon appears in 2013 blockbuster Elysium, but as dystopia rather than comedy. Set in the year 2154, Matt Damon plays an ex-con who tries to walk the straight and narrow, but constantly gets in trouble with the legal system run by a computer main frame and its robot agents. (More than anything, its aesthetics reminds me of Schwarzenegger’s epic Total Recall.) The robots don’t understand humour, nuance or human misery, their only response is violence and imprisonment. It’s like a sadistic version of “Computer says no”.

During the holidays, I was on a break in the Baleares with my family. Since we travelled inside Schengen, we did not think twice about passports. Too bad the connecting flight going home was in London, which – obviously – is outside Schengen. It was easy enough to explain the situation to the passport police, they said no problem as we were going back to our home country. The issue was with the airline, whose computer systems were designed to comply with international travel regulation. It was impossible to check-in to the flights without passport numbers! To make things more complicated, it was Sunday morning so obviously no one who could by-pass the system was in the office. For a while, I feared we would end up in a limbo between departure terminals (like Tom Hanks in The Terminal, to drop another movie reference). It worked out in the end, thanks only to some very creative work by airline ground staff who probably violated more than one paragraph in the process. But for a while, it was our own very real version of “Computer says no”.

It is very likely you’ve had a similar experience yourself. No matter how sophisticated the system, no software developer can ever foresee all the potential situations that may happen in real life. Let’s build in a human over-ride function in all systems from now on, okay?