There was a terrible train crash in North Philadelphia this week. Three people were killed and many injured. Still derailments and deaths are quite rare when one considers the number of trains that roll throughout the United States and the world every day. Commuter, long hauls, subways etc. have created an exceptionally safe mode of transportation. Yet there are cries from every corner of the spectrum for more stringent measures of all sorts. It is an interesting study of our national psyche.
We want to install Positive Train Control (PCT) on every stretch of rail in the Northeast Corridor and eventually on every dangerous bend in our 60,000 mile national system. Monies had already been earmarked to do that on the fateful link but AMTRAK decided there were more important priorities. I am not arguing against safety but think about the reasoning.
We want to foolproof everything. There is no danger or steep cliff of life that we cannot eliminate or at least ameliorate. The implications are intriguing. That was a human mistake of some sort that created the carnage. Thousands upon thousands of trains have travelled that exact turn for the many decades. To my knowledge there had never been a derailment prior to and so thousands of train engineers knew of the threat and took appropriate action. We now want to be able to override that decision making and put it in a box. Interesting. I guess we are saying we are not as good as machines….and maybe we aren’t.
The broader context has this not only on railways but in so many parts of our everyday lives. There was a rogue pilot who for whatever reason of insanity took a plane to the ground with hundreds aboard. Immediately there was a call to be able to take over a flight from the ground in mid flight. Sounds great except people would be a little wary if Hal was at the wheel. Google has a car that can drive coast to coast without human intervention. Supposedly had four or five fender benders but it was John Doe and not Watson that was at fault.
We have high speed trading on Wall Street. Everything is done by computer. They get a news flash nanoseconds before anyone else and through a series of algorithms decodes key words and puts out buy and sell orders for millions of share before you can even say Dow Jones.Plug in name rank and serial number and goals in life and we will do the investing and balancing of your portfolio for you. Easy peasy. No human intervention.
Relax TTG you are overdoing it. Really? Ok I will play golf. I now have a rangefinder that will tell me the distance to the hole, whether it is downhill or uphill and what club I should use. If I am sneaky I can adjust my driver for loft depending on the hole.Don’t have the latest golf ball? You lose. My computerized scorecard will tell me where I need work and what my choke threshold is. The Royal and Ancient might be me. Then my Fitbit will tell me how many steps I have taken, calories I have burned and whether I beat out Meehan, Yeoman and Farrell for the day, week and year. No sweat.
Enough of that physical exercise I am just going to sit back and enjoy some music….The Denver Symphony. What? You mean that is not a symphony but a computer generated concerto? What about art? Sorry but your painter’s palette has been replaced by a mosaic of 4 million pixels. Don’t you understand how much clearer you are seeing things? Sorry but we have decided to forego the creativity and spontaneity of human thought for efficiency and expediency. Just check your Apple Watch to see how much better off you are.
I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t tell you I like progress. I went through a four hour operation a few months ago and the doc never laid a hand on me. It was something called DaVinci that did all the work. I love anything with Leonardo’s handle on it. But that was a great example of a tool being used by a very talented surgeon. I just hope we don’t step over the edge in the future and take that wonderful human brain out of it.
For that MD and train engineer and human stock trader there is a thing called culpability. You have some sort of vocation that requires you to take responsibility for your actions. The machine didn’t screw up. You did. As a corollary the wires and diodes didn’t create something beautiful and successful. You did. That is an incredible force of HUMAN nature that I hope we never lose. Robots are cool but they can’t kiss or cry or smile with warmth or hold with tenderness. At least not yet.
We can have drones do our dirty work. We can probably overmedicate, self lubricate and overeat and look to machines and say the devil made me do it. In the long run we are responsible for this world. If we create monsters it is our fault not their’s. No matter what happens for better or worse in our lives it is because we made a decision and therein lies the culprit or hero as the case might be. I am all for progress but let’s not let technology take over completely as we take a back seat. The next complex equation might make us expendable. Is that a far out concept? Maybe not as far as you think.
Ted the Great.
There are 6.8 billion people on the planet and 4 billion of them use a mobile phone. Only 3.5 billion of them use a toothbrush. There are 500 apps added each day to the Windows Phone Store. Android users were able to choose between 1.3 million apps. Apple’s App Store remained the second-largest app store with 1.2 million available apps as of July 2014.
In the computer security context, a hacker is someone who seeks and exploits weaknesses in a computer system or computer network. They can and have taken control of your financial data, automobiles, security systems, as well as infiltrating the Department of Defense computer system. This is probably the largest vulnerability of our technology age. Even if we install PCT on trains there is a good chance there is someone out there that can override it.
A company called Holosonics developed the Audio Spotlight system, which uses tiny speakers to focus sound into a very narrow beam. In a food or department store it may be able to project a message specifically for you. If you do eat that Ben and Jerry Chunky Monkey ice cream then maybe the devil did make you do it.
A very cool thing is the Atmoph Window. A digital window that opens to beautiful scenery from around the world with 4K-shot videos and sound. Place it anywhere, be anywhere. Complete with sound effects you can have anything from tropical beach to a blazing fire hanging on your wall. Should cost about $350 per which is probably what it would cost you to stay per night.