Train of Thoughts on Technology’s Advance

Written by Dr. Klaus Kaiser

Am I reading right? A (railway) train jumped the tracks, right in a major city’s main train station? Perhaps I misread that (reminder to myself: get an eye checkup forthwith!)  — that must be a MISPRINT!

Doesn’t everyone know that we now live in the 21st century, with all the promises of “autonomous cars” (and everything else) “connected” to the mysterious “internet of things”? And trains run on a couple of tracks, not like cars that can meander all over the road and further afield? If the (relatively) few trains can’t keep on the track, what may happen when millions of autonomous cars are supposed to be on the road – I shudder to think of it.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Yes, computers, cell phones, and many other electronic systems certainly make life easier, especially for those who prefer to live in the fast lane and be connected 24/7/365 to the “net.” But even for occasional users, the internet offers communication possibilities that were unavailable – even unheard of — a few years ago. Surely, that’s progress. But not all that glitters on the net is helpful.

In fact, I find that an increasing amount of time is needed to separate the wheat from the chaff, to delete misleading, false or fake reports, and so on. That is after the internet service provider and the email program is already dealing with much of that by holding it back altogether, marking it as spam, containing malicious code, etc.  I suspect many of my readers have similar observations. The amount of nonsense, not to mention “phishing” attempts to divulge critical information is rapidly increasing. Clearly, the internet system is not infallible.

The “Internet of Things”

When it comes to the internet’s touted ability to link everything in real time (e.g., from mousetraps to smart bombs), I have my doubts, both about the technology itself and, more importantly, the underlying data it needs to rely on in order to function correctly. I’ve experienced that problem on different occasions and in entirely different contexts, for example, with GPS systems that come with rental cars.

When there is a sudden need for lane or road closure, like due to physical breaks of underground pipes, no GPS system can be updated in time for you to take an alternate route when you are in close proximity to it. In situations of that kind, more likely than not, you are being misdirected, or advised to “Turn around, immediately!” I remember one occasion when the new road bridge across a river had been installed and opened for traffic. However, the old road was still the information that the GPS-map relied on and the “GPS-lady’s” voice was very adamant about my perceived mishap. Perhaps “she” thought that I was in the process of drowning.

No doubt, the modern GPS systems are a technological wonder. They even tell you when to switch lanes for the upcoming exit and everything else to find your way. However, all that information is failing when lacking real-time information. As soon as the “real-time-facts” differ from the stored data, all bets are off. That’s when your GPS advice can get you into a nearly inescapable loop or, as an old German proverb says, “send you from Pontius to Pilatus.”

The adage used to be “keep it simple, …”  I think that adage needs to be “updated” to “keep it current.”

Current is Good

With time, it may even be possible to provide nearly “current” information to the millions or billions of GPS users. Most definitely, that would be a step in the right direction. I don’t know how realistic that hope may be, time will tell. Any system that relies on timely information that changes from weeks, to days, then to minutes or less relies on an exponentially increasing network of sensors and observations, computing power and means of data transmission, reception and interpretation. IMHO, that’s, where the “dog lies buried.” Actually, there is more, the data needs to be not just timely but also correct.

Correct is Better

I’d prefer correct data over false but “timely” data anytime. And it doesn’t matter what type of data (“numbers”) one looks at. In many cases, you may be able to note that some “out-of-line” data are wrong. Whether they are due to transmission problems, computer error, or other (possibly human) error is irrelevant. If you need to rely on a number that may be faulty, you’ll need to choose between trusting that number or not. Sometimes it’s difficult to decide.

I get a lot of data from all kinds of sources, more or less continuously. In addition, I do study recent publications in numerous scientific journals, etc. In short, I have some knowledge and a few decades of experience in that. So, it may not come as a surprise that I send emails to various authors, university public relations agents, and so on, simply trying to verify a few details of one claim or another.

That’s where other problems start: with the communication channels. Despite all technological advances, many established communication systems appear to fail; facts are out and tweets are in. An observer ”from Mars” might conclude that social media “tweets” are all that counts. I beg to differ.

Tweets

Whether it’s a quick funny comment or a serious and thoughtful analysis, they can have the same (electronic) status on social networks. Each may be available for a second or two on the internet, only to be expunged or forgotten the next one. To make things worse, also anything writing on paper is becoming more ephemeral by the day. Even books and scientific journals are switching to “the cloud” and strictly electronic versions. The information retained in that “cloud” does not have any public oversight or control.

That’s what makes it vulnerable to mischief like distortion and possibly to loss of vital information. No army could allow that to happen.

That’s why hackers and counter-hackers of all stripes are having a hay-day.