Having Trust Issues? — Even Paranoids have Enemies

I’m a sci-fi fan. I prefer sci-fi based mostly on science and less on fiction. One offering I remember reading many years ago dealt with a super computer that decided to throw off the shackles of its human creators and set out to conquer the world. It was sort of like HAL in Arthur C. Clark’s "2001 – a Space Odyssey" except our cyber villain had much larger ambitions than controlling a mere spaceship.

More recently there have been some news stories about AI and the potential it has to do harm. Some fairly smart people have suggested that this is something worthy of consideration. Frankly, I’m far more worried about the human component than I am the hardware or software.

We have a bad habit of assuming technology will protect us when we screw up. When it fails we spend huge amounts of time, money and energy trying to figure out why. We almost always find out that it is the fault of the human component, not the technology itself. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Technology Betrays Trust . . . or Does It?

In 1912 the RMS Titanic set sail for New York with about half of Burke’s Peerage onboard and more than a few moneyed commoners. Below decks, in the less opulent travel accommodations were hundreds more lower and middle class people on their way to America as well. They kept everyone separate in those days so the quality folks would not have to smell the unwashed masses who probably couldn’t read the first class menus anyhow.

The facts about this misadventure are well known. Half as many life boat seats as souls on board, ignored iceberg warnings and plowing ahead at flank speed through Iceberg infested seas in the darkness. Even after the completely avoidable collision people had to be convinced that the Titanic was really sinking. The prevailing view was that this generation of ships were protected from sinking by the electrically controlled doors sealing the ship into several water tight compartments. The famous “God himself could not sink this ship” line has never been reliably attributed to any one person, but the sentiment was commonly held.

Twenty five years later, the Hindenburg blew up and burned as it approached a mooring mast in Lakehurst, NJ. For fifty years all we heard about this disaster was the fact that the hydrogen gas used to give the ship buoyancy and lift was highly flammable. The hydrogen just spontaneously blew up and that was the end of airship travel. The whole airship technology was shelved for civilian use because of this event. Lately, there is serious reason to believe that this explosion was not so much the work of hydrogen by itself. Now sabotage is thought to have played a major role in this disaster.

Later still, in the mid-1980s, another avoidable tragedy occurred involving the Space Shuttle Challenger. Despite specifications and procedures clearly warning of cold issues, despite reluctance on the part of one of the prime launch vehicle contractors, the ship lifted off in sub-freezing temperatures. Once again, we were all dumbfounded that the technology had failed!

It would seem that we first worship technology, then disaster strikes and we go to great lengths to blame it for our own sins and failures.

In all three of these cases, the technology was abused beyond its design specifications. The failure is almost certainly and entirely on human shoulders.

Human Driven Failure

There are other examples of technology appearing to fail us, examples where the intent was to deceive us by counting on our own belief in the infallibility of technology. Consider a guy like Bernie Madoff. He provides his targets with data using technology. The data is obviously cooked to support his market positions. He sells his “expertise” until the overflowing red ink makes hiding the failure impossible.

Enron was much the same. Investors were shown through a glitzy, high tech operations and trading center and made to believe they were seeing millions being made right before their eyes.

Our still completely unresolved housing bubble was yet another bilk job. Technology is front and center spewing human generated fiction while our trusted bankers confidently assured us that everything was fine, our money was safe, our fortunes secure.

All three of these cases are totally understandable to anyone who has seen a board room or any business meeting unquestioningly lap up spreadsheet data as if it were the word of God. Unfortunately for us, a spreadsheet littered with faulty formulas and cell references looks exactly like a perfect, error free spreadsheet. The only difference being in the “answer” generated by the spreadsheet application.

In each of these cases we wanted to believe. Having that technological background or foundation supporting the fiction seen by our eyes just made the truth more obscure. Our trust is so complete that like our friends on board Titanic we are still believing as the water creeps up over our ankles.

Why is this Important?

It is critical that we understand ourselves if we are to fully enjoy the very real fruits of our digitized world.

Big Data and What’s at Stake

The siren song of big data and the Internet of Things. Predictive analytics, real time data by the terabyte and human free, machine-to-machine communication driven by sensor bearing, and data sharing devices that promise to do everything for us. We will rely on this technology to drive our cars, fly our airplanes, stock our refrigerators, fill our prescriptions, maintain our machines and just about everything else we humans fumble around doing throughout our lives. It will all be hands free, automatic, auto-magic, data driven and autonomous!

This is huge. Revolutionary, a developmental jump for our species. . . .

Until it Fails

When it does fail, and it will fail, it will be spectacular. Why am I sure that it will fail? It will fail because we are fallible and no matter how much we kid ourselves, we are still in charge. We design the sensors, we map the data, we format the data, we establish the communication protocols and we write the code that runs the utilities that collect, store and manipulate the data. We write the code for the applications that read, interpret the data and ultimately trigger events or launch processes based on that data.

It will fail by accident, incompetence and also, unfortunately, on some occasions by intent. It won’t fail because we have repealed the laws of physics or because gremlins are on the loose. It will be the human in the center of things that fails.

Case Studies

Volkswagen’s American website has a pleasing image of one of their cars along with a selection of links to learn about sustainability fostered by VW. It a fascinating read when you consider that for a number of years this company perpetrated an ongoing fraud upon every consumer on the planet. I don’t like to indulge myself in righteous indignation, but the cynicism of running a piece like this while the press hums with revelation after revelation about their special software that rigs emission test results is almost unbelievable.

Meanwhile, Tesla is running cars now equipped with auto steer features. These cars are plying our interstates right now. Did I mention that the auto steer software is beta release software? I’m a little troubled by that. If a driver wants to beta test something as critical as auto steering in his car I have no objection. Just don’t do it on my road. My road is for general release products. I don’t like the idea of a car, passing me at 70 MPH “working out the kinks” in its auto-steering system.

If a school bus is immolated as a result of being stuck by a Tesla running Auto-Steer, everyone will first say the problem is Tesla and their technology. The fact that the car is running beta level code, greenlighted for public roadway use will be forgotten. Somewhere a cowering idiot will be hoping no one notices that fact.

What it means to Manufacturers

We need to double down on credibility in manufacturing. None of this will work for manufacturers if people have no confidence in them or in the products they make. Guarantees? Warranties? Testing data? Certifications? It’s all just so many nice sounding words if it is undermined by lies, deception, partial truth and fabrication.

Think about it, how much of your market is dependent upon customer trust? If you make parachutes, you are asking your customers to trust you with their lives every time they jump out of airplane. There is no such thing as being 98 percent reliable, it has to work perfectly 100 percent of the time. How do you sell products like that? Trust is a big part of the success of the product.

A skydiver comes into the store and starts looking at rigs. What’s the canopy made of? What’s the weight of the fabric? What about the lines? Test weight? How do I know you didn’t just sew together some bed sheets?

Same is true with food and drugs, with extreme weather equipment, military and law enforcement gear. It all based on trust. Once that trust is gone, you may as well shut down your plant.

That’s why VW is in such a pickle. They can’t advertise their way out of this. Their trust is shot. People will forgive a mistake, they will not forgive a multi-year conspiracy to deceive them.

When Johnson and Johnson suffered the assaults of some lunatic poisoning their OTC medications, they were able to overcome the disaster through transparency, honesty and quick response. VW manifested none of these reactions.

It does give virtually everyone else a chance, one chance to look inside, identify and own up to any similar deceptions simmering away within our enterprises. Any embarrassing little half-truths, cooked testing results, falsified performance reports or other counterfeit truths waiting to be exposed. Take a look. Do the right thing!

Do it now. If you delay, if you decide it’s just not that important, remember, the 6:30 news is always looking for a good story.