New Technology to Die for

By | January 16, 2014 | 0 Comments

 

 

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Science fiction is filled with stories of dangerous devices. The rogue computer HAL in “2001, a Space Odyssey” comes to mind. But we need not wait for space travel. Dangerous technology is here now. We are already outsmarting ourselves.
Runaway cars.
A few years ago, Audi was hit with complaints that cars suddenly accelerated. The cause was shown to be driver error − mistaking the accelerator for the brake. Now, however, we have advanced to the point that cars actually run away, with fatal results.
A veteran Highway Patrol officer was driving his wife, daughter and brother-in-law to the 13-year-old girl’s soccer practice. The gas pedal became stuck on the floor mat. The off-duty officer was trained in high-speed driving and was able to control the Lexus at 120 mph. But technology prevented him from stopping it.
Power brakes depend on vacuum assist, and at wide-open throttle, there is very little vacuum. So after a few applications, the brakes reverted to non-assisted and were unable to stop the speeding car. Even worse, the car had the new “on-off” button instead of the old, reliable ignition switch. The driver repeatedly pushed the button, but the engine did not shut off. He did not know that if the car was moving, he had to hold the button down for three seconds − during which the car would travel over 500 feet.
Perhaps this three-second press was added to assure that accidentally bumping the button would not shut off the engine. But the whole thing is an unneeded complication − an ingenious solution to a nonexistent problem. The familiar ignition switch cannot be activated inadvertently, and it is user-friendly − turn right for on, left for off. A button used for both on and off is a user-unfriendly gizmo looking for trouble.
Moreover, the automatic transmission is difficult to shift into neutral while the car is moving, which the trained driver probably attempted, and the engine computer does not shut off the gas when the brakes are applied. As a result of all these technological “advances,” all four people were killed in a fiery crash.
I once had a stuck accelerator, and I was able to shut off the engine, coast to a stop and make temporary repairs. It was easy and instinctive − and did not require reading a lengthy owner’s manual to learn details that probably would not be recalled in an emergency.
New cars are supposed to be safer, not just newer. Technologic innovations are supposed to solve existing problems, not create new ones. Auto manufacturers are supposed to make their cars better, not load them with more gizmos that allow an increase in price. Engineers are supposed to think like engineers, not salesmen at Best Buy.
Dangerous CAT scanners.
The CAT scan is a life-saving innovation. Excessive use has raised concerns about radiation exposure. But here we are talking about something worse − a CAT scanner that exposes the patient to excessive radiation with just one use. One of our finest hospitals exposed 206 patients with suspected strokes to about eight times more radiation than a proper scan would have used.
Some patients noted patchy hair loss and reddened skin, as though they had received therapeutic doses of radiation to treat a brain tumor. Radiation can cause brain tumors, as well as cognitive impairment.
The excessive radiation exposure remained undetected for 18 months, until a patient reported hair loss. Apparently there was no periodic monitoring of radiation dose. Perhaps the computer software was developed elsewhere and simply installed − and was never checked. Perhaps the software or hardware malfunctioned after installation − and was never checked.
No one − from the administration, to the radiation safety committee, to the department chair, to the section head, to the residents, to the technicians who operated the machines − no one took personal responsibility for assuring that, at the very least, the patients were not being made sicker.
That’s the point: not passively accepting what is going on, but taking personal responsibility to assure that equipment is working properly. After all, lives are at risk.
“New and improved” gizmos.
We are not talking about misuse of technology. If people choose to use cell phones or text while driving cars − or even locomotives − that is their fault. Earlier, people wrote in notebooks, or put on makeup, or allowed other activities to distract them from driving. Here we are talking about new technology itself, which may be is less effective, or less safe − or both − than older technology.
Remember Windows Vista? Can anyone honestly say he understands 15 gigabytes of code and can write it error-free? Vista was advertised as faster and more secure than the earlier Windows XP. In fact, it was slower, and its security was arguable − security updates came every few weeks. Then came Windows 7, which again was advertised as faster. Tests showed it was slightly faster than Vista, but revealingly, it was not compared to XP. Now we have Windows 8, which caused so much trouble that Windows 8.1 was introduced – to make it resemble Windows 7. Talk about “advance to the rear.”
If Windows, which most of the world uses, is continually altered but rarely improved, what does this say about computer programs that control complex and dangerous devices − for example, CAT scanners or airliners? Recall the Qantas Airbus that crashed because of a computer malfunction.
Then we have minor controls in cars, which may cause major problems. My old car’s air conditioner and heater were controlled by a rotary knob and two sliders, which could be adjusted by feel. But my new car’s system is controlled by a row of identical buttons, which require me to take my eyes off the road and use three or four keystrokes to do what turning a knob used to do.
And then we have changes that appear merely cosmetic, but which may be harmful. My old car’s instruments were easily legible − white on black with white lighting. My new car uses gray markings and violet light, which look really sexy at night, but which are almost illegible in sunlight. Often I am barely able to read the speedometer, and quite unable to read the fuel and temperature gauges. Like the ubiquitous gray-on-gray LCD, what good is new technology if it yields information we can’t see easily when we need it?
We cannot turn out a generation less educated than earlier generations, and expect them to run more complex devices. Instead, the complex devices will run them. We cannot let computers control our lives − computers that are too complex for anyone to understand, but which act too quickly for anyone to control in real time.
To top things off, we have “algorithmic investing,” in which computer models supposedly give objective evaluations of investments, but which actually allow the biases of those who wrote the models to continue without being questioned − until the banks and investment firms go broke, and nearly bring down the whole economy.
Finally, we have “end-of-life care plans,” which supposedly allow terminal patients to die painlessly, but which actually allow the biases of those who wrote the plans to continue without being questioned − until salvageable patients are killed. National health care, anyone? No more Hippocratic Oath. No more individual patients cared for by individual doctors. Just rote, mechanical, unfeeling, government-controlled “algorithmic medicine.”
If we allow ourselves to be controlled by computers – or even begin to act like computers ourselves – we should not be surprised when we are sent to the recycle bin and permanently deleted. What did we expect?

Contact: dstol@prodigy.net. You are welcome to publish or post these articles, provided that you cite the author and website.
www.stolinsky.com

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