Monday, October 7, 2013

Trusting Technology

I am (more slowly than I'd like) making my way through "Wired For War" by P.W. Singer which I pulled of the CNO's reading list some time back.  Lately I've had lots of time in airports and planes, so have been able to get in a lot of good reading.  I'd like to make a few posts, not necessarily directly about the book, but more about some topics the book covers.  This time around ... trusting technology.

Man's ability to trust technology goes back to, dare I say, man's earliest days?  It is not man's ability to trust that has changed over the centuries/millenniums, but the maturing of specific technologies and the introduction of new for which man is to trust.  Setting the proper scope and getting rid of a common misconception, though, is technology doesn't necessarily have to deal in 0's, 1's, and electronics.  I would say one of the greatest technological breakthroughs of all time was the wheel.

In trusting technology, you can talk two sides.  1.) Trusting that the technology will successfully do the job it was designed to do and 2.) Not fearing the technology.  This post concentrates on #2.

The book has a section titled "Woe-bot, Whoa-bot!" which highlights some of the more unfortunate encounters with robots in recent history.  One of which that really caught my attention was an event that was described as "the first person in history to be murdered by a robot".  A man in early 1979 was killed by a robot arm that swung unexpectedly, striking him in the head.  Killing him.  And even more unfortunate, it was that man's son's second birthday.

Maybe this story stuck out because it was the "first" human death from robot.  Maybe because my own daughter's second birthday is coming up soon.  Or maybe ... it is because I had a very similar experience in my own robot history.

Bearcat Cub at the 2006 Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition at Selfridge AFB.  Fantastic looking Dr. Pepper hat on the far left!
The year was 2005 and I was a member of the University of Cincinnati Robotics Team.  We were getting ready to compete in the Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition and our robot, the "Bearcat Cub", was newly fitted with a wireless game controller.  The controller worked great.  We had fun with it and would take our Cub on "walks" through the halls of the engineering building with smiles only a proud new papa could wear.  Life was good.  We'd park the robot in the middle of the lab and on most Fridays, have some high school tours come through when the team was meeting with pizza.  We'd talk about all the sensors the robot wore and give a quick demo with the controller.  For some of the smaller groups we'd even see if any of the students wanted a turn driving. 
It was one of these Fridays ... things got scary. 
We had just finished the demonstration and the robot was sitting, idle.  The minutes ticked by as we talked with the high school students.  The controller held loosely in someone's hand.  No one paying much attention to the motionless, 200 pound hunk of unforgiving technology.  Then, out of no where, the robot started spinning, in circles, out of control, and FAST. 
Turns out ... that after the controller was idle for 10 minutes it had a battery saving "feature" that would put the controller in a low power state.  Part of this low power state (for some reason) meant that the neutral of each joystick would go far right.  Problem. 
There was blood, there were bolts, and there was a blitz for the big red kill-switch that sat atop the robot's frame.

Trust stems from having a level of comfort in thinking you know how a person or a thing will respond in unpredictable situations.  We lost trust in our robot.  But after we figured out the problem, the trust started to grow again.  Unfortunately,  there were multiple high-speed spins (one of which was in front of the University President) before we figured out the source of the problem and the fix.  Because this was brand new, created in our lab technology, we had to intimately know the ins and outs of every component and we had to understand the interactions between the components to have complete trust.

Sometimes technology can be a little unnerving.  But that's OK.  For many, the thirst of knowledge is much greater than the fear of the unknown.  And it is those people we have to thank for many inventions AND innovations.  But when it comes time to mass produce and distribute technology, whether digital or not, we have to get it right.  Not only because of sensationalist 24/7/365 news channels, but because the common person won't dissect a piece of technology to understand it much less fix it.  And in the event of a malfunction, it will be discredited and discarded.

When it comes to modern technology, such as our newest warfare domain, Cyberspace, what level of trust do you have?  What needs to be done to increase that trust?


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