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The UK census computer: genius or disaster waiting to happen?

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The deadline for the UK's census is Sunday and from that point it's down to 1,200 people stuck in a giant warehouse in Cheshire.

The team are looking for a fast turnaround in processing the 33 million forms and so what have they done? Why, gone and spent £58 million on a computer of course. This is no ordinary computer though. No, this one was built US firm Lockheed Martin and is based on one that was used for the US census last year. Still, it could be worse, it could be based on the computer that counted ballots (and chads) in Florida.

Anyway, depending on who you believe, this system is a revolutionary leap or a disaster just waiting to happen. The main problem lies in the fact that it thinks it can read handwriting - always a recipe for disaster. There's a load of guff about how it can read 88 forms a minute, about how it can read a form even if it has coffee stains on it or has been filled in with a leaky pen. It has been finely attuned to read specifically British handwriting and it's amazing.

Of course, we've been here plenty of times before. The one thing that computers are completely useless at is thinking like humans. And when you consider that there has been a record number of phone calls to the census people confused over the new forms, it doesn't take a genius to work out the potential for catastrophe.

People will use joined-up writing - even when they're told not to. People will cross out words and write above them. They will also write outside of boxes. Hopefully, if the computer can't read just one small bit of the form, the whole form will be given to a human, but then you can't be sure of that.

The possibility remains that the census will take far longer than expected and will produce less accurate information than ever before. But then, this is all speculation. We'll all get to see if the £250 million job goes smoothly in just a few days. ®

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