Sunday, May 01, 2005

Faith-based Technology

This appeared in the May 2nd issue of Electronic Engineering Times at http://www.eet.com/news/latest/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=161601595

There is much talk today about faith-based science. That is, should we accept as scientific that which best conforms to ancient texts, or that which is observable, verifiable and repeatable.

It may be tempting for the engineering community to say we are above all that. After all, we deal only with the measurable and the quantifiable – hard facts - as found in data sheets, specification documents. PowerPoint presentations and news releases.

But in fact, we may be taking a lot on faith – more than we realize. For example:

Faster is better. The original typewriter keyboard was designed for maximum efficiency. It was so efficient that a skilled typist would often jam the mechanical keys in the gate and so have to stop and reset the keys. In effect, machine efficiency frustrated human efficiency. So a new, kludgy keyboard was created (the QWERTY system we still use) to adapt the machine to the pace of the typist. We don’t do that anymore. We expect people to double their output every year because machines double their output every year. Let’s face it, we can longer physically keep up with our ingenuity; there is no shame admitting that.

Smaller is better. Yea, kind of. But we’re stuck with fingertips the size of fingertips. There’s a point where miniaturization will reach a wall and we’ll have to surgically implant our digital devices if we are to keep up with Moore’s Law which God apparently gave to Moses after the Torah went to press. Tapping into our neural networks is sure to be the next step in cool thing; the next big thing. But if having our PCs hacked seems an inconvenience, imagine having our brains hacked.

Entrepreneurship beats craftsmanship. Today’s business model rewards only a very limited skill set – that of the entrepreneur - and indeed those who succeed there are rewarded wonderfully. Those with other skill sets – such as craftsmen – are rewarded by seeing their jobs go offshore. How long before this bubble pops? Recall how in March 2000, investment bankers were masters of the universe; 18 months later firemen were the new heroes. This isn’t to argue that we need one or the other – we need the one and the other.

Intellectual Property is paramount. IT (Information Technology) depends on IP (Intellectual Property) protection. This goes along with the notion that entrepreneurship is inherently superior to craftsmanship. Curiously, the people history deems the greatest are those who freely gave away KT (Knowledge Technology) and WT (Wisdom Technology).

There is too a free lunch (and a perpetual motion/anti-gravity machine). Every technical advance grows out of a felt need. Invariably, however, that advance creates a situation requiring a further ‘fix,’ which in turn will need yet another fix, each more energy-intensive than the one before. There really is no free lunch. We must get better at doing inventories of technical effects beforehand, and the first step is to acknowledge we should even undertake that effort.

Can is more important than should; as in, if something can be done it should be done, and if there’s a market for it, must be done. The classic case is the atomic bomb, a unique convergence of science and technology; politics and morality. True, it was wartime, but the decision to deploy such a device was too far-reaching to be made by only a handful of men. For all their brilliance, Dr. Oppenheimer, General Grove and the others apparently never considered the folk saying, What goes around comes around: one day such a weapon could be aimed at us, and be small enough to carry in a shopping bag.

Which brings us back to faith-based science. What if those who deal in certainties decide that science should not depend on theories based on relativity and uncertainty? How is it the most advanced technological society in history is even asking these questions? If quantum physics goes, where does that leave electronics? But even aside from that, the technology community has its own faith-based notions that deserve some reconsideration.

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