Monday, February 16, 2009
Death By Technology?
Patlabor reflects potential benefit, perils of technology
Sometimes the predictions about the future featured in TV and movies can be comically inaccurate.
But even when inaccurate, they sometimes contain traces of prophetic warning.
Patlabor is the tale of the chaos wrought by a monomaniacal computer programmer with a God complex. Disgusted with the hubris of the Babel project -- a large-scale land reclaimation project in 1999 Tokyo -- master programmer Eeichi Hoba programs an inentional flaw into an operating system for labors, futuristic mecha used for defence and industry in a fictional late 90s Japan.
When wind blowing against buildings produces the proper sound frequency, labors equipped with the faulty Hyper Operating Systems go berserk, unstoppably destroying everything in their path.
Patlabor seems to be yet another comically remiss prediction about the future. The robotics technology necessary to produce labors is now far more developed than in the late 1980s when the film was produced, but remains far out of reach.
Yet Patlabor seems to have predicted another technical blunder that it was believed would devestate global civilization: the infamous Y2K bug that had computer programmers working overtime for the latter portion of the 1990s in order to avert the impending disaster.
The belief was that computer programs with only two digits to record the year would crash at midnight on New Year's Eve as their programs forced them to record the year as 00.
Efforts to update the computers of government, business and the vast majority of home computers with software providing four digits to record the year were successful and it remains unknown whether or not the disaster would have actually taken place.
Patlabor provokes an intriguing question: what kind of devestation could someone with malicious intent inflict if they were able to design key defects into an important piece of technological work.
The potential ticking time bomb of such an act could even provide yet another venue for terrorism. Scientists aligned with or sympathetic to terrorists could accomplish more for a terrorist cause in one calculated act than a hundred 9/11s.
It's a frightening prospect, but it begs the question of what is actually the bigger problem: the potential to design catastrophic flaws within technologies, or developed civilization's clear over reliance on technology?
On a yearly basis, decision making power is taken out of human hands more and more often and bureaucratic decrees are enforced through computer. On a yearly basis, more and more basic tasks are taken out of human hands and performed through a machine.
The argument is that these things are making developed civilization more efficient. But as part of a wider trend, this is making developed civilization more and more vulnerable to such malicious acts.
There are, of course, solutions to these problems. Background checks on those involved in high-profile research and development programs have been part of the standard operating procedure of cutting edge R & D projects for years. This isn't likely to change any time soon.
But vigilance as a watchward is nearly always a wise idea.
Considering the stakes global civilization has invested in high technology, such vigilance remains as important as ever.