The text below is copyrighted by Ventura Life & Style.

The Best Man for the Job is a Human

By Raymond Smith

      In ancient Egypt, revolutions took centuries. But modern humanity has witnessed so many miracles that we’ve come to expect new magic as routine, and to trust it as benign.  Consider the homes in which your grandparents lived.  Total up the gadgets, gizmos and abilities they lived without that have become inextricably woven into the fabric of your life.  Then you can begin to see how thoroughly our technology defines our consciousness and our culture.  In my grandmother’s small town in north Ontario there were no radios, no cars, no telephones, and no electric lights.  There was no electricity, period.

       It’s easy to assume that any power that will allow robots to assemble an automobile unattended may also serve to cure your love life.  But technology only works well for some tasks.  It flunks terribly at others.  The criteria used by engineers to judge appropriateness of use has become known as the three D’s:


  • Dumb          The job requires no ingenuity or aesthetic judgment--only precision and patience.

  • Dirty           The work environment is unpleasant or hostile to health.

  • Dangerous  People get killed doing this work by hand.

      By these standards, robots are ideal agents to explore space for us. But there are numerous examples of failed mechanical endeavors that in the end could only be handled by people.  Net Nanny and other software packages are supposed to keep children from surfing pornographic web sites, and urine tests are supposed to stop their drug abuse. These measures only go so far. They cannot replace Mom and Dad’s common sense, continuous concern and intrusive eyes.

       Even so, social control mechanisms are particularly seductive to engineers. The Total Information Awareness program, the FBI’s Carnivore email program, and the airline passenger profiler CAPS II are examples. Engineers are control freaks as a condition of employment, which is usually a good thing.  You wouldn’t want to bet your life in a passenger jet designed by a poet. But there are no technical cures for philosophical diseases such as religious hatred.

       “One of the critiques of expert systems is that they aren’t broad,” says Ohio University Robotic Engineer David Chelberg.  “They have no common sense. They’re very good at what they do, but if you ask them a nonsensical question, they’ll give you a nonsensical answer.”

      In particular, the TIA is run by DARPA, the same government research agency that originally invented the Internet. The TIA motto reads: Scientia est Potentia (Science is Power) and their emblem, before it was redesigned to something less threatening, depicted a huge eye glaring down on North America.  TIA is designing guardian computers to analyze every scrap of data in every electronic database, public or private.  These meticulous dredging machines would sift through medical and tax records, school grades, travel tickets, and every credit card purchase at every supermarket.  They would then make arcane correlations between all the bits, it is hoped, and automatically weed out suspects before their crimes could be committed.  The basic premise of the operation is that innocent people should have nothing to hide.   

       Even with domestic restrictions TIA research and development is going ahead, funded at ten million dollars this year, and twice that for 2004.   Undeterred, DARPA began a second program for computer analysis of public surveillance cameras, called “Combat Zones that See”, a system to recognize and track faces and license plates as they migrate to and through cities. DARPA made headlines again last month when it was revealed in Congress that it had set up a computerized futures market, called TerrorBet.  Participants would guess what target would be blown up next and be rewarded if correct.  It outraged Congress and humiliated senior Pentagon officials. Program head John Poindexter was subsequently asked to resign.  

       James Bamford, in his book Body of Secrets revealed that the National Security Administration already has the ability to hear, if not actively listen to, every electronic data exchange on the planet.  But the NSA could not prevent the 911 attacks because the planners knew that their lines were tapped.  The terrorists shunned technology. When they communicated at all, they used pencil and paper.  So if super-computers won’t work, then what will? 

       A Minnesota flight instructor snitched Zacarias Moussaoui to the FBI when the student allegedly wanted to learn to fly a plane, but not to land it.  The very idea was an insult to the instructor’s common sense.  Passengers on American Airlines Flight 63 tackled Robert Reid when they spotted him trying to light the fuse on his shoes.  The best tool for the job of recognizing demented humans is not a snoopy robot but rather another alert human.

      Like King Midas in his golden garden, we are sometimes too trusting of our magical technology. We can’t all be like the Amish, who turn their backs on electricity and yet live worthwhile lives.  But we must be wise enough to take what we need from high tech, to leave the costly junk, and to see the difference.

--text and photo by Raymond Smith

Back to Multimedia