Technologists who Give a Damn?

I’ve been using Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in classes for a while now.  One key message of the book is that professionals (well everybody) needs to care about their work.  Perhaps more in Zen terms, to be mindful while they work.  The author asserts that one of the reasons technology is so alienating now-a-days is that the lack of care is evident in the workmanship, robustness, etc. I’ve also been working on an update of the SSIT Strategic Plan, and one element of that discussion has been what catchphrase should we use?… Like on business cards.  IEEE’s is “Advancing technology for humanity” which is a good one.  Currently we are using “Where Technology and Society Talk” … but it is tempting to use: “Technologists that Give a Damn” … a bit demeaning to imply that some (many?) don’t, but unfortunately this is at least occasionally true. There are at least two levels of caring.  The obvious one for SSIT is paying attention to the social impact of inventions and products (the “should we make it” as opposed to the “how we make it“).  There is a lower level that is also critical, in software we might ask “is this code elegant?”  Oddly, there seems to be a relationship between underlying elegance and quality.  Clean, simple design often works better than a ‘hack’, and it takes both a level of mastery, and a level of mindfulness to accomplish.  Some number of cyber security holes are a result of code where folks didn’t care enough to do it right. No doubt many “blue screen of death” displays and other failures and frustrations emerge from this same source.  Often management is under pressure, or lack of awareness, and is satisfied with shipping the product rather than making sure it is done well.  I’m not aware of any equivalent in most development facilities of the Japanese “line stop buttons” that make quality a ubiquitous responsibility.  The reality is we need technologists who invent and produce products that are right socially, done right technically — technologists who embrace “care” at all levels. A retired career counselor from the engineering school at one of our ivy league schools in my Zen class observed that we were more focused on ‘career skills’ than ‘quality’ in our education, and may be suppressing student’s sense of care.  We then observed that this apparent lack of care, evidenced in so many consumer products, might be a factor in why girls are choosing to not enter STEM education and careers. I suppose the question  that remains is “do we care?”

Eavesdropping Barbie?

So should children have toys that can combine speech recognition, wi-fi connection to capture and respond to them and potentially recording their conversations as well as feeding them “messages”.  Welcome to the world of Hello Barbie.

Perhaps I spend too much time thinking about technology abuse … but let’s see.  There are political/legal environments (think 1984 and it’s current variants) where capturing voice data from a doll/toy/IoT device could be used as a basis for arrest and jail (or worse) — can  Barbie be called as a witness in court? And of course there are the “right things to say” to a child, like “I like you”  (dolls with pull strings do that), and things you may not want to have your doll telling your child (“You know I just love that new outfit” or “Wouldn’t I look good in that new Barbie-car?”) or worse (“your parents aren’t going to vote for that creep are they?)

What does a Hello Barbie doll do when a child is clearly being abused by a parent?  Can it contact 9-1-1?  Are the recordings available for prosecution?  What is abuse that warrants action?  And what liability exists for failure to report abuse?

Update: Hello Barbie is covered in the NY Times 29 March 2015 Sunday Business section Wherein it is noted that children under 13 have to get parental permission to enable the conversation system — assuming they understand the implications. Apparently children need to “press a microphone button on the app” to start interaction. Also, “parents.. have access to.. recorded conversations and can .. delete them.”  Which confirms that a permanent record is being kept until parental action triggers deletion. Finally we are assured “safeguards to ensure that stored data is secure and can’t be accessed by unauthorized users.”  Apparently Mattel and ToyTalk (the technology providers)  have better software engineers than Home Depot, Target and Anthem.

Who is Driving Your Car?

A recent CBS Sixty Minutes program interviewed folks at DARPA, including a demonstration of how a recent computer-laden car could be hacked and controlled.

Computers in cars are not a new thing, even the dozens that we see in new models, and they have been interconnected for some time as well.  Connecting your car to the network is a more recent advance — “On Star” is one variation that has been on-board for a while.  The ads for this have suggested the range of capabilities — unlock your car for you, turn on your ignition, detect that you may have been in an accident (air bag deployed, but maybe  monitoring capabilities) and of course, they know where your car is — if it is stolen they can disable it. Presumably a hacker can do all of these as well — and the DARPA demonstration shows some of the implications of this — stopping the car, acceleration, etc.  Criminals have already acquired armies of zombie computers to use in attacking their targets, blackmail, etc.  Imagine having a few hundred zombie cars in a major city like LA — enabling both terror or blackmail.

An additional sequence on SIxty Minutes shows the hacking of a drone.  And perhaps equally important, a re-programmed drone that is not (as easily) accessed/hacked.  Behind this is an issue of software engineering and awareness.   The folks making drones, cars, and other Internet of Things (IoT) objects are not ‘building security in’.  What is needed is an awareness for each IoT enabled device of the security risks involved — not just for abuse o f that particular device, but also how that might impact other devices in the network or the health and safety of the user and public.

A recent dialog with some IEEE-USA colleagues surfaced a question of where software engineering licensing (professional engineers) might be required … and we used video games as an example of a point where it did not seem appropriate … of course, that all breaks down if your video game can take over your car or your pace maker.

 

 

Paul Cunningham


Paul Cunningham
Dublin, Leinster; Ireland
SSIT Volunteer since: 2.013
picture of Cunningham SSIT Roles
2013 – 2016: Chair, UK & Ireland Chapter
2016 – 2018: Member, Board of Governors
2016 – Present: Associate Editor, IEEE Technology and Society Magazine
2015 – Present: Chair, SSIT SIGHT
IEEE Roles
SSIT Board, Member IEEE Technical Activities Board, Conference Committees, IEEE Section/Chapter
SSIT 5 Pillars Interest:
Humanitarian/development, Sustainability, Technology Access, Ethics, Impact of Emerging Technology
Other:
Founder and Coordinator, IST-Africa (www.IST-Africa.org); Founder and Coordinator, mHealth4Afrika (www.mHealth4Afrika.org); Visiting Senior Fellow, Wrexham Glyndŵr University (Wales)
Web site & Social Media
http://www.IST-Africa.org
https://www.linkedin.com/in/paul-cunningham-151541/
IEEE Senior Member in UK and Ireland Section of Region 8

Last updated: 02/02/2017