Mar 13 2024

Spreadsheet errors

I’m always up for someone reminding us of the impact VisiCalc had on the world.1 Let Tim Harford pick up the story:

Despite its stuttering beginning, VisiCalc quickly became a phenomenon. Watching those two strangers walk out of his presentation in 1979, Bob Frankston could hardly have dared to hope that, three years later, Apple II computers were being sold as VisiCalc accessories” — the $2,000 entry fee to get access to the spreadsheet, a $100 miracle. Unsurprisingly, it was the accountants who caught on first and drove demand.

Bricklin recalled in a 1989 interview with Byte magazine, if you showed it to a person who had to do financial work with real spreadsheets, he’d start shaking and say, I spent all week doing that.’ Then he’d shove his charge cards in your face.” […]

Tim Harford, being Tim Harford, has to remind us of the downside of all this reliance on technology:

[…] Looking at the way spreadsheets are used today certainly suggests a warning. They are endlessly misused by people who are not accountants and are not using the careful error-checking protocols built into accountancy for centuries. Famous economists using Excel simply failed to select the right cells for analysis. An investment bank used the wrong formula in a risk calculation, accidentally doubling the level of allowable risk-taking. Biologists have been typing the names of genes, only to have Excel autocorrect those names into dates. 2

When a tool is ubiquitous, and convenient, we kludge our way through without really understanding what the tool is doing or why. And that, as a parallel for generative AI, is alarmingly on the nose.

I acknowledge that electronic spreadsheets might have been invented to retroactively justify the aphorism, To err is human. To really $!&@ up — takes a computer,” but I don’t think it’s fair to spreadsheets to equate them with Large Language Models hallucinating all over the place.

  1. Always useful to remind folks that Microsoft didn’t invent the electronic spreadsheet when they launched Excel for the Apple Macintosh, two years before Excel was released on Windows.)↩︎

  2. I’ve not had autocorrect rename a gene on me, but I’ve fallen foul of most of those.↩︎