Saturday, December 24, 2011

Enhancing the Humans of the Future

The summer 2011 issue of The New Atlantis carries a series of articles addressing the question of enhancing humanity through technical means: cyborgs, indefinite extension of lifespan, uploading one’s mind to computers, and other dreams of a group that call themselves “transhumanists.” It is a question fraught with implications for engineering ethics, because engineers will be the people who will develop many of these technologies if they come to pass.

In many ways, we are already living in a future where human performance is enhanced beyond what the “natural” human body can do. Is there an essential difference between a man who climbs into the cab of a backhoe and does the work of fifty men with shovels, or five hundred men digging with their fingers, on the one hand; or a man whose mind has been uploaded into a computer that controls a giant robot which can dig ditches as well as a man with a backhoe can, on the other hand? We are accustomed to seeing construction workers use powerful machinery all the time. But we might be surprised to see a gang of giant robots show up at a construction site, especially if we strike up a conversation with one and it claims to have a name, a Social Security number, and opinions on the upcoming Presidential election.

To my way of thinking, a human being with the freedom to get in a backhoe cab in the morning and get back out of it in the evening, is better off than a man (if that is still the right word) who has been permanently embodied in some piece of hardware subject to all the ills of engineered machinery, including obsolescence, breakdowns, and power failures. If all the imaginable enhancements to human performance become reality, a given human being can’t choose them all because some of them will be incompatible with others. And in making a choice, he or she will be shutting a lot of doors, not only to enhancements that are incompatible with the set chosen, but also to the door of living as a normal, natural human being with the incredible and even now not fully understood flexibility that life as a natural human being implies.

Great wisdom is found in old myths, such as the myth of King Midas. To a certain frame of mind, what better gift could be received than that of turning everything you touch into gold? If you substitute for gold the ability to achieve all the transhumanist dreams of indefinite lifespan, superhuman intelligence, artistic ability, athletic ability, vision, hearing, and so on, I think the myth’s point is still valid. Oscar Wilde is alleged to have said, “When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers.” Depending on how the thing is done, we may find that at least some of the supposedly desirable enhancements so fondly wished for turn out to be curses in disguise.

This is the stuff of science-fiction novels, and the point of such tales is generally to make us realize that we really have a wider and more complicated set of values than we often think we do. Midas found that he loved his daughter more than he loved gold, but he fully realized this only when he touched her by mistake. In my view, the whole transhumanist program of wanting whatever we can imagine suffers from a severe lack of philosophical and emotional depth. If Ray Kurzweil is a good example of the transhumanist frame of mind (and I think he is), his books about the future blessings of transhumanism are great at explaining how we may get there technologically. But the most you will find with regard to moral philosophy is the fact that he cites as his moral exemplar a fictional hero of novels for boys: Tom Swift.

Now I was an admirer of Tom Swift myself, from about the age of ten when I found “Tom Swift and His Television Detector” in my grandmother’s attic, left over from when her boys were growing up in the 1930s. I continued to enjoy the series when it was revived for a time in the 1960s, but when I went away to college I slowly began to realize that the cardboard world of technological whizzes whose inventions always made for good and banished evil was just that: two-dimensional, unsophisticated, and inadequate for helping me to understand the complex ambiguous world that real technology exists in.

I don’t think Mr. Kurzweil and his transhumanist friends have realized that Tom Swift couldn’t fix all our problems, and neither can we simply by acting like Tom Swift. Almost without exception, the transhumanists are people who disclaim any serious belief in the Judeo-Christian God and an afterlife of rewards and punishments. If you don’t have a hope of heaven, your only chance to get there is to make it yourself, and that’s what the transhumanist movement is trying to do.

I do not fault their motives. Kurzweil has personally developed machines to help blind people read, and I am sure that he and his fellow transhumanists sincerely believe that their plans are the best possible thing for humanity. But they rarely take into account the fact of original sin, and the fact that somehow, the limited scope of power, space, and time that living in normal human bodies gives us is the ground from which every human achievement has sprung.

Like most heresies, the hope of indefinite human enhancement takes a small idea which is proper in its place in the overall scheme of things, and blows it up out of all proportion. The myths of Midas, of Frankenstein’s monster, and even Oscar Wilde all tell us that we had better think in a more in-depth and multifaceted manner about the promise of human enhancements before we cross a line that we may regret crossing someday.

Sources: The summer 2011 edition of The New Atlantis carries extended discussions on “Science, Virtue, and the Future of Humanity.” The Oscar Wilde quote was found at I consulted the Wikipedia article on King Midas, which says that the incident of Midas touching his daughter was first presented in a short retelling of the legend by American author Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Air France 447 Crash: The Rest of the Story

On June 1, 2009, the aviation world was shocked to learn of the disappearance of Air France flight 447 over the Atlantic Ocean during a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. All 228 people aboard died, and it took until April of 2011 to recover the flight-data recorder from its watery grave. Until then, the main clues as to the cause of the crash of the fly-by-wire Airbus 330 were some telemetered data received during the final moments of the flight that indicated the airspeed instruments had been iced up and were giving false readings. While serious and potentially confusing to pilots, it seemed like an insufficient reason by itself to make a modern jet aircraft fall out of the sky.

We now have a much fuller picture of what happened that day, thanks to the diligent efforts of the French air-accident investigation agency and the publication of a book about the crash that contains a complete transcript of the words spoken in the cockpit and captured by the flight’s voice recorder. As it turns out, the frozen pitot tubes that sense airspeed were only one of a number of confusing factors that led to a fatal mistake on the part of one of the two co-pilots. So human error combined with mechanical problems, as it so often does in accidents of this kind.

An article in Popular Mechanics magazine presents the following story. The trouble began when around 2 AM local time, the plane entered a region of frequent thunderstorms near the equator. A large airliner such as the Airbus carried a complement of a captain and two co-pilots. Shortly after 2 AM, the captain left the cockpit in charge of the two co-pilots as he went to take a nap. Instead of taking evasive action to avoid a large line of thunderstorms in their path, the co-pilots decided to maintain their course. They shortly entered the thunderstorm area, where the pitot tubes iced up. At this point a critical transition in the operation of the airplane occurred.

The Airbus 330 is one of a new generation of fly-by-wire aircraft in which a computer is in the path between the pilots’ controls and the actual control surfaces of the plane. The normal flight mode is autopilot, in which the computer is basically flying the aircraft. But certain unusual conditions, such as the pitot tubes icing over, make the autopilot trip out and hand control of the plane over to the pilots. Because of several other distractions in the cockpit, it is not clear that the junior co-pilot realized this happened about 2:10 AM. The airplane was experiencing turbulence, ice crystals on the windshield, and strange electrical phenomena such as St. Elmo’s fire. While we will never know why co-pilot Bonin (the one with least experience) did what he did, the fact remains that at 2:10, he pulled the stick back and basically kept it there until it was too late to correct his mistake.

Even non-pilots such as myself know that if you try to make a plane climb too steeply, its airspeed falls. Eventually the airflow past the wings is insufficient to provide enough lift, and the plane “stalls.” In a stall, the plane becomes a piece of metal falling through the sky. The only remedy is to reorient the craft by pushing the stick forward to get air flowing past the wings in the right direction and recover enough lift to pull out of the resulting dive. But you need a lot of room to do this in. Once the plane stalled, it began to lose altitude rapidly—almost two miles a minute—and the stall began at an altitude of about seven miles.

If the captain had arrived from his nap earlier, or if the senior co-pilot had shoved his colleague out of the way and done the right thing with both sticks, the stall might have been recoverable. But the confusion that happened next was also abetted by the fly-by-wire situation.

In older aircraft, the two pilot sticks are mechanically coupled together, so only one message goes from the cockpit to the ailerons. If two pilots disagree on what to do with such a stick, they find themselves literally fighting a tug-of-war in the cockpit, and most reasonable people would react by at least talking about what to do next.

But even in the autopilot-off mode, the Airbus sticks could be moved independently, and the plane responds to the average of the two sticks’ motion. To my ears, this sounds like a software engineer’s solution to a human-factors problem. In the event, even though the senior pilot eventually did the right thing with his stick, the computer averaged it with Bonin’s all-way-back stick, and the stall continued.

The rest of the story is short and bitter. About 10,000 feet above the ocean, the captain returned. Cursing, he realized what was happening, but no power on earth could have saved them at that point. Two miles of air was not enough to stop tons of aluminum and human bodies from plunging into the ocean less than a minute later.

What can be learned from this tragedy? Pilots of fly-by-wire craft around the world now have a vivid bad example not to follow, for one thing. Also, I hope the software and hardware engineers working on the next Airbus rethink their strategy of independent sticks and averaging. While human-machine communication is important, this accident emphasizes the fact that interpersonal communication in a crisis is vital. That single additional channel of communication through a mechanical link between sticks might have been enough to avoid this accident.

Despite such avoidable tragedies, air travel is still one of the safest modes of transport. But it stays that way only by the constant vigilance, training, and competent execution of duty by thousands of pilots, engineers, maintenance people, traffic controllers, and others. Let’s hope that the Air France 447 disaster teaches a lesson that makes air travel even safer in the future.

Sources: The Popular Mechanics article which carried much of the cockpit transcript appeared online at I also referred to the Wikipedia article on the Airbus series. And I thank James Bunnell for drawing my attention to this article. I blogged on the Airbus crash on June 8, 2009, the week after it took place.

Monday, December 12, 2011

MythBusters to HouseBusters: The Case of the Errant Cannonball

I forget when I first saw an episode of MythBusters, the TV show in which dubious claims, urban legends, and other questionable contentions are placed under the searching glare of experimental investigation by a gang of enthusiastic, ironic performers/technicians/scientists. The show has been around in some form or other since it was originated by an Australian production company in 2002, so it could have been any time in the last decade. I still regard watching it as somewhat of a guilty pleasure, partly because it is, first and last, entertainment, and why would someone with a Ph. D. in electrical engineering watch an actor (Adam Savage’s original career) and a guy whose only earned degree is in Russian linguistics (Jamie Hyneman) knock around a huge workshop and pretend to be scientists? Because they’re fun to watch, and in the only sense that matters, they really are scientists. So when I saw a news report that one of their experiments—with a cannonball, it turns out—had gone seriously awry, I had to confess to mixed feelings.

First, the details that are presently known about the accident. For several years, the MythBusters team has used the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office bomb range for filming episodes involving explosives. Apparently this is an area in a natural valley supplemented by earth berms that would stop small flying shrapnel or bullets. But as the show’s personnel were testing a cannon that fired a 30-pound, ten-inch iron projectile, misaiming caused the ball to ricochet off the berm and fly about 700 yards into a nearby neighborhood, where it shot completely through a house and ended its career by smashing the windows of a minivan. Photos of the entry and exit points showed animated-cartoon-like round holes in the wallboard. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but use of the bomb range was suspended pending an investigation, and Savage and Hyneman have announced that any further such tests will be conducted farther away from civilization, in a more distant county. The test site where the accident occurred is about 40 miles east of San Francisco.

Until now, the show has maintained an almost unblemished safety record, except for one other less serious incident, also involving explosives. The producers always include one or two warnings during each episode on the order of “kids, don’t try this at home,” and when especially dangerous work comes up they consult qualified experts for advice. Considering the hair-raising things they do, this record is an admirable achievement, but because the show is so highly visible (Hyneman and Savage were recently awarded an honorary doctorate by a Dutch university for their promotion of science education), they have an extra obligation to do things safely.

If the show’s stars had gone through the usual science-education mill and gotten their Ph. D.s in the normal way, they might have made halfway decent experimental physicists, perhaps. But the world would be lacking a good example of how the scientific method can be applied to everyday questions that people wonder about. Could Archimedes really have invented a way to set fire to a ship using the rays of the sun? Will putting aluminum foil on your car really keep cops from being able to use their radar guns on you? And so on.

Hyneman and Savage are really doing what used to be called “natural philosophy,” back when philosophy really meant the love of knowledge, and not some arcane specialty that you have to get a Ph. D. in to understand, which is mostly what it means today. Before about 1800, most science was done simply because people were curious and wanted to know whether a thing was true or not. There were no huge funding agencies, no boards of proposal review or journal referees—just a few curious guys (it was nearly all guys then) who got together in coffee shops and wrote each other letters about their experiments. And because there was almost no organized industry producing scientific instruments, they had to build almost all their equipment and experiments themselves.

Hyneman ran a special-effects shop before getting involved with MythBusters, and so the very hands-on demands of that type of work (especially before digital technology took over movies to the degree it has) gave him a set of skills that fits very well into the kind of things required by the MythBusters shows. So his lack of formal scientific training isn’t really a disadvantage—instead, he goes about things the way the average guy with time on his hands might look into them. And if you spend some time on YouTube you will find a thriving subculture of amateur scientists who have happily filmed exploits with everything from multi-megavolt Tesla coils to using high-voltage electric-utility capacitors to explode watermelons. Hyneman and Savage are the heroes of such people, who probably make up a good percentage of their viewership.

Somewhat to my regret, I noted that the Wikipedia biographies of both stars list them as sympathetic with the skeptic or atheist turn of mind. While such a philosophy may be an advantage in their particular line of work, it is by no means a necessity. Most of the natural philosophers of the past were believers of some kind or other, and that didn’t keep them from investigating the world they regarded as created by God. Many of them thought that learning about the natural world and its wonders was itself a kind of worship, because in doing so they discovered more of the mind of God.

Atheists or no, the MythBusters people deserve credit for popularizing both science and how to do dangerous things safely. Their latest mishap, although attention-getting, could have been a lot worse, and I’m sure they will be more careful in the future while investigating questions from the past, such as whether a cannonball could really breach a stone wall. And I’m glad they are continuing a long-established tradition of science for science’s sake—even if they are interrupted by messages from their sponsors.

Sources: I relied on reports of the cannonball incident from the San Jose Mercury-News at, as well as the Wikipedia articles “MythBusters,” “Jamie Hyneman,” and “Adam Savage.”

Monday, December 05, 2011

Technology Becoming Culture: Self-Winding Watches Return (Sort Of)

The other day I went into a watch store in an outlet mall. After finding what I wanted (a gift), I was standing near the cash register and noticed sitting on the counter a couple of cubical leather-covered boxes, about five inches on a side. There was an oval dingus on the front of each and some chrome-plated knobs or controls too.

After the saleslady rang up my purchase, I asked her what the boxes were. “They’re self-winding watch winders. You put the watch on it and it winds it for you.” If this were a work of fiction, I could make up a lot of humorous dialogue at this point, but the only other thing I actually found out from her about the watch-winders was that self-winding mechanical watches are now back in style, at least in certain circles of young people who I suppose have enough money to spend on themselves for things like that. And I went out of the store realizing that I had found yet again another example of Technologies Becoming Culture.

Here is the pattern, as exemplified by the self-winding mechanical watch. Before there were wristwatches, there were pocket watches. And before there were pocket watches, there were pendulum clocks. And we can go all the way back to Egyptian water clocks if you want. The point of this romp into the past is to show that the line from water clock, to pendulum clock, to pocket and then wristwatch, and on from there to the electronic (quartz) wristwatch, is a connected progression in the same technical direction: from large, bulky, inconvenient, and inaccurate (relatively) to smaller, lighter, easier to use and maintain (less winding, etc.), and more accurate. After all, the main point of a watch is (or used to be) to know what time it is. Mechanical watches were accurate enough for all usual purposes as far back as 1900, assuming you set them and wound them once a day. Then the self-winding watch was introduced, which has a weight that is slung back and forth by the movement of the wrist of a reasonably lively human being, and obviates any need for winding. But then you have to remember to set it whenever it gets a little fast or slow, which could be anywhere from daily to weekly or so. And when digital electronic watches came along, the quartz element was so much more accurate than the mechanical balance wheel that you could go literally months without having to set your watch at all, unless you wanted it to be accurate to the second all the time. So from a technical point of view that takes the simple, straightforward position that the virtues of a watch are accuracy, low need for maintenance, and reliability, the quartz watch wins hands down (so to speak).

That’s technology. Now for the culture.

By culture, I mean things such as social attitudes, beliefs, self-images, traditions, memories, fashions, and so on. Everything besides technology, in other words. When the digital watch came in, the mechanical watch people were down but not out. For a while they moved into Breitling territory—super-expensive craftsman-made watches for the rich and famous. But there’s only so many rich people in the world, and sooner or later a marketing team got together with an advertising team and decided to make old-fashioned self-winding watches cool again for lots of people.

They used to be cool for purely technical reasons: you didn’t have to wind them like the non-self-winding kind. But that was back when the only point of comparison was mechanical watches that didn’t wind themselves. Now the self-winding mechanical watch is cool because it harks back to an earlier era when people actually had to move around a lot during the course of a day, instead of sitting for eight or ten hours in front of one piece of electronics or another, not moving your wrist farther than it takes to type or wiggle a video-game control stick. But what if you’re one of these young people who bought a cool self-winding watch, only you don’t move around enough to keep it wound?

We have just the thing for you: a self-winding watch winder, which can plug in a power outlet or (wait for it) runs on batteries! So you can have a self-winding mechanical watch that’s really a battery-powered electric watch, if you trace the energy back far enough. The battery feature, I guess, is for those Caribbean-island excursions where you run your solar-powered computer to keep in touch with the office by satellite.

Anyway, for as long as the fad lasts, the self-winding mechanical watch, formerly thought to be dead and buried by technological progress, has been resurrected by the culture mavens and now enjoys a second life, together with its accessories. I tell this story in an engineering ethics blog not because there’s anything wrong with buying a watch for purely cultural rather than practical reasons, nor anything specifically wrong with buying a self-winding watch winder, though I detect a faint smell of corruption around it somewhere. But the main lesson here is that people buy things for all sorts of reasons, not just technical ones, and if some clever marketers put old-fashioned technology in a new light, you’d be amazed at what they can revive and sell more of.

Sources: While the exact location of my purchase is classified (my wife may read this blog, after all), those incredulous souls who think I must have made this all up out of lack of material are directed to the website, where you can peruse dozens of different makes of watch winders costing anywhere from $45 up to more than I would pay for a watch. But then, I’m a notorious tightwad.