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My God, What Have We Done?* (by Paul W. Smith)

The Gadget Small

Atomic bombs are in the news of late.  Last year we marked the 70th anniversary of the first use of the A-Bomb on Hiroshima.  A treaty intended to keep Iran from getting one is still being argued on Capitol Hill.  All eyes are on North Korea, where Supreme Dictator Kim Jong-un grows ever closer to having a viable nuclear weapon of his own (10 kilotons as of a September 2016 test).  In a perfect world, we would be the only country with an A-bomb arsenal, and we would trust ourselves to stay away from the button. 

In the summer of 1939, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to let him know that the Nazis were working to extract and purify uranium-235.  Although this was quite difficult to do at the time, it was known to be a key ingredient for an atomic bomb.  Nazi success in this endeavor would not end well for the rest of the free world.  FDR’s immediate reaction was to kick off the Manhattan Project, with the goal of beating the Germans.  And so began the atomic race. 

The project was managed from start to finish by Robert Oppenheimer, who orchestrated processes of gaseous diffusion, magnetic isotope separation, and mechanical centrifuging to get “The Gadget” ready for testing in the summer of 1945.  Since this had never been done before, no one was totally certain whether the test, code-named “Trinity”, would be a colossal dud or a civilization-changing event.  The flash, reportedly seen by a blind girl 120 miles away, affirmed the latter and set off some profound and diverse responses.

Physicist Isidor Rabi remarked that the very equilibrium of nature had been upended. Test director Ken Bainbridge said “Now we’re all sons of bitches.” Oppenheimer himself quoted the Bhagavad Gita – “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Several of the witnesses at Trinity soon signed a petition against ever doing something like this again, but it was ignored. 

In short, the observers of the first atomic blast were both awestruck and terrified.  Less than a month later, a bomb estimated at approximately 15 kilotons was dropped on Hiroshima, and three days later one struck Nagasaki.  At least 129,000 people were killed.

The comparison between atomic bomb development and technologies in general is a bit disingenuous; this was a wartime, anything-goes effort to race the enemy and be the first to wield the biggest gun.  The impact of the technology was immediate and profound.  From first boom to wholesale destruction was only a matter of weeks.  Although bomb technology hasn’t remained stagnant (current bombs are 1000 times more powerful) the human race has been scrambling ever since to curtail the actual use of nuclear weapons.  The very fact that this technology exists leaves most of us feeling just a bit unsafe. 

When I was growing up in the 50’s, seat belts were just starting to show up in some cars, but it wasn’t until 1995 that they were mandatory throughout the US.  At about the same time, several major automakers started experimenting with inflatable restraints, eventually leading to the first passenger airbag in the 1973 Olds Toronado.  In 1998, just three years after seat belts were mandated, the feds required all passenger vehicles to have dual front airbags.  For all these years, it’s been comforting to know that a combination of seat belts and airbags has been protecting me while traveling by car. 

Now, it appears that as many as 14 deaths have been directly linked to randomly exploding airbags, and more than 100 million vehicles worldwide have been identified by the manufacturer Takata for recall.  The prospect of an airbag spontaneously exploding in my face does not leave me feeling safe.

You can’t have a conversation about how technology has changed our culture without mentioning the Smart Phone; my first was a Blackberry, and since that one died I have been an Apple iPhone guy.  I concede that they are not always the most technologically advanced, and I occasionally see a Samsung Galaxy feature that I would like to have, but I have stayed the course with Apple. 

Recently, that has proven to be a really fortunate choice.  I had heard of a few isolated incidents of the Galaxy Note 7 battery explosions, but didn’t think much of it until, on a recent flight from Denver to Phoenix, the flight attendant announced emphatically that all Note 7’s needed to be completely powered down, and could not be connected to any external power source for the duration of the flight.  Last week, the FAA made it a Federal crime to fly with the device in the United States.  Samsung has permanently stopped production, and although my Apple stock is going up, I’m more than a little curious to know what was different about the Samsung batteries.  Until we get answers, I won’t feel totally safe. 

Of course phones aren’t the only Smart stuff in our lives these days.  You can’t look at any publication on new technology without reading about TV’s, cars, houses – pretty much every part of our lives – that will soon be connected.  In this new world order, I can lock and unlock my home, see who’s at my front door, adjust my thermostat, or check how full my trash can is – and I can do it all from anywhere. 

Connecting everything and everybody everywhere might seem a bit frivolous at first, but the implications of security and energy savings are propelling the technology forward.  As for the trash can, I have yet to discern an advantage in opening an app on my smartphone versus opening the cabinet door in my kitchen. 

If you are concerned that a hacker could break into your car’s computer and mess with the controls, then you probably don’t want to hear about Chris Roberts.  Chris is the security researcher who is believed to have hacked into an airliner through its entertainment system, and subsequently issued some nefarious commands to the flight control computer. 

As frightening as one hacker and one jetliner is, there is more.  While the average consumer might feel reassured with the growing number of smart-connected devices, all a network security analyst sees is a growing number of entry points for hackers.  This was mostly theoretical fear mongering until the October outbreaks.

A company called Dyn is one of a handful of DNS providers that helps people connect to websites.  One Friday they suddenly experienced a huge volume of traffic attempting to knock their service offline.  The incident showed how a targeted digital assault on just one company can disrupt a massive piece of the Internet.  The source of some of the traffic was traced to Internet of Things devices – webcams, thermostats, baby monitors and perhaps even trash cans – that connect to one another and the Internet. 

We’ve all experienced Internet outages from time to time, but this was the mother of all disruptions.  The Department of Homeland Security is still trying to figure out who was behind these DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks, but it won’t be easy; the attack came from tens of millions of IP addresses around the globe.  A malware variant called “Mirai”, customized to exploit the Internet of Things, has been identified as the culprit.

The experts saw this one coming. IoT devices are very popular, and manufacturers are rushing them to market in order to grab share.  If you’re an entrepreneur, this is what you do.  This frantic product development cycle leaves little or no time for device security.  In the meantime, DDoS attacks are becoming more widespread.  The source code for the Mirai Botnet has already been made available to the public, and one tracking site suggests there are more than 1.6 million infected devices currently active.  None of my stuff, it appears, is safe anymore.

A-Bombs, air bags, cell phones, IoT devices -  each of these technologies could be viewed as a perfect storm of intense motivation, short product development cycle, and unforeseen consequences.  You can count on it happening again.  “Mirai”, a Japanese word, translates as “the future.”

(*) Robert Lewis, co-pilot of the Enola Gay, August 6, 1945.

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Author Profile - Paul W. Smith, a Founder and Director of Engineering with INVENtPM LLC, has more than 35 years of experience in research and advanced product development.

Prior to founding INVENtPM, Dr. Smith spent 10 years with Seagate Technology in Longmont, Colorado. At Seagate, he was primarily responsible for evaluating new data storage technologies under development throughout the company, and utilizing six-sigma processes to stage them for implementation in early engineering models. He is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, and currently manages the website “Technology for the Journey”.  

Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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