Informatics 101: Third Assignment

Due: Thursday, October 12th, in class

The idea behind this assignment is to force you to examine what it might mean to express a procedure so precisely, clearly, and simply that even a machine can follow the procedure. Again, as in all of your assignments, the issue of first importance isn't the particular task but what doing it tells you about information---its definition, acquisition, uses, abuses, and meaning.

For this assignment you are to do some programming, but rather than programming a computer you will have to think about how to program a human being. In 1953 a young man, know today only as "HM", had an operation. Doctors removed part of his brain, including the hippocampus, trying to cure his severe epilepsy. His epilepsy improved, but he immediately developed several problems, the most dramatic of which was an inability to form new long-term memories.

HM's memory span is a few minutes at most, so that he lives now, as he has done since 1953, in a perpetual present. In his words "At this moment everything looks clear to me, but what happened just before? That's what worries me. It's like waking from a dream; I just don't remember".

HM's memory of how to do things is less affected. He can, for example, learn new physical tasks. In one such task, HM had to trace the outline of a star-shaped figure without crossing the borders, while only able to view the figure and his hand through a mirror. Most people find this difficult at first, yet over three days of training, HM learnt this task as well and as rapidly as normal subjects, even though he was perpetually unaware that he had ever practised the task before.

HM also stores information about emotional episodes. One psychologist concealed a drawing pin in his palm before shaking hands with HM. Next day the same psychologist returned to see him again. HM was not aware that he had ever met the man before; nevertheless, he refused to shake hands with him.

HM lives his life from day to day and from hour to hour, and sometimes from minute to minute, with no memory of what came before. If he turns away from you in a conversation then turns back he may have forgotten your existence entirely. He survives by keeping an extensive diary in which he notes everything of importance that just happened to him. When he wakes in the morning he notices the diary (he places it carefully so that the next morning his future self will notice it right away), starts reading it, notes the latest entries, and that restarts his context from the day before.

For this assignment you must imagine yourself to be HM's nurse, and assume that he is having a very bad day. This is unrealistic, but assume that today he can only remember one minute's worth of information at a time, and then it is all lost. You must write out detailed instructions for him to make a breakfast for himself of a boiled 5-minute egg, two slices of toast, a pot of coffee, and some juice. There is juice, bread, coffee, eggs, and all the usual stuff in the refrigerator. There is also a stove with the usual settings, and a cupboard with the usual cutlery and dishes, and so on. In other words, you can assume that he has a standard kitchen.

You can rely on HM being able to recogize common words (like kettle, stove, flame, water, sink, pot, egg, and so on) and being be able to find them in the kitchen with no loss of time (that is, instantly). You can also rely on him being able to read and write as much as you choose, and to have as much paper and pens as you need, and you can assume that any reading and writing takes next to no time, no matter how much there is of it. You can also assume that he has a clock and knows how to tell the time---and that he can do arithmetic on hours on minutes.

You cannot, however, assume that he understands how to do some things that you might otherwise consider very basic: he can recognize the coffeepot and he can recognize coffee, and you can ask him to "put coffee in the coffeepot", and so on, but you cannot ask him to "wait until it boils" because the boiling may take longer than the one minute he has to keep his context going. You must write all the necessary context for him, and give him explicit instructions to make sure that no matter what happens he will be able to follow your instructions to the letter and make breakfast for himself.

This is not a trivial task. Consider, for example, the question of finding an egg to boil. You can rely on him knowing what a refrigerator is and what an egg is and so on, so you can say: "fetch the eggs from the refrigerator" and you can say things like: "put [a certain amount of that you will have to determine] water in a pot and put it on to boil" and you can say "put the egg [that is in a certain place that you will have to determine] in the water that is in the pot on the stove" (note how explicit that last instruction must be because you cannot be sure that less than a minute has passed since he first put the pot on the stove to boil!), but you will have to give him explicit and detailed instructions to boil the egg for exactly five minutes. Further, you will have to instruct him on how to identify an egg that isn't broken in the container, and you will have to tell him to return any unused eggs to the refrigerator, and so on.

Assignment Format

For this assignment, do not write an essay. Instead, write a sequence of instructions: sentences in the imperative mood (for example "Put water in the pot on the stove"). You can add a short introduction to explain anything that HM or the reader might need to know. Notes, cautions or explanations are allowed but not required. The work must be done in the instructions. Instructions could be numbered if you choose.

Use the usual head material to identify the paper. As usual, strive for a professional appearance. Spelling and grammar count. Incomplete phrases are disrespectful of HM and will hurt the result. Make the effort to make the instructions complete and easy to follow. You should produce a numbered list of instructions leading ineluctably to breakfast.

The assignment will be graded on completeness (and lack of unnecessary distractions), accuracy and presentation (meaning that it is clean, neat, easy to read and includes all the necessary information, not special papers, ink or binders).

This assignment does not require you to express your reflections about the nature of Informatics. Just write a program. Of course, it is always good to think about what you are doing and how this assignment fits into a discussion of Informatics.