The Frustrating Lives of People With Names That “Break” Computers

April 5, 2016 | Elizabeth Knowles

Computer keyboard smashed with a hammer
Photo credit: James Lee/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Does Mrs. Null really exist? Not where some computers are concerned.

Computers are much better than humans at a lot of things. They can calculate faster, search through incredibly large amounts of information, and repeat extremely boring and complex tasks without complaining. What they can’t do is think.

Sure, we’ve all seen that little hourglass or spinning pinwheel that indicates that a computer is “thinking,” but all that really means is that it is taking a while to process something — a computer can’t think intuitively.

When Jennifer Null first tried to use her married name to buy plane tickets shortly after getting married, she encountered a problem that would be simple to overcome for a human, but that proved tricky with a computer — it couldn’t recognize her name.

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“When Jennifer Null tries to buy a plane ticket, she gets an error message on most websites. The site will say she has left the surname field blank and ask her to try again,” says the BBC. As humans, we know that a word can mean different things — in this case “null” is both a surname and a synonym for “void,” but a computer can’t make this differentiation unless it is taught to.

Null told the BBC that, “On one hand it’s frustrating for the times that we need it, but for the most part it’s like a fun anecdote to tell people.” It is a good example of a computer’s limitations, and she is far from the only one with this type of problems.

Computer forms are set up so as to accept “typical” names. People with a single name rather than a first and last name, and those with last names that are too short (such as a single letter) or too long (like Keihanaikukauakahihulihe'ekahaunaele) test the limits of a system and are what we call “edge cases.”

To complicate things even further, name formats vary around the world. East Asians, for example, use their surname first; the Burmese don’t use a surname at all.

Christopher Null, who is used to experiencing similar problems to those described by Jennifer Null, has found some workarounds. According to his article in Wired, he sometimes enters his name as “Null.” with a period added to the surname field. Still, some companies ignore the “Null” portion of his name and send mail simply addressed to “Mr. ”

Funny? Yes. Frustrating? I can only imagine.

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