Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 01/85 item 02 - scanned

BLINDED BY SCIENCE? (column)

Unless you were out of the country just before Christmas, you will have heard about the horrific pile-up on the M25 motorway. You will probably have also heard about the underground train that piled into the back of another, killing its newly-qualified driver. An odd way to start Reflections you may be thinking, but not at all. These two separate accidents are related because in the hue and cry following each one, the issue of signalling lights was raised.

"Of course there was an accident. There were no fog warning lights on this stretch of motorway" went one argument. Another relating to the railway accident implied that although the "proceed with caution" light was on, this was ignored. Now I have no idea whether the claims and counterclaims are right or wrong, that is for the courts to decide. What I do know is that in each instance the focus of attention was not on the individuals involved - the people in charge of the train, lorries and motor cars - but on the presence or absence of a glowing piece of metal behind a coloured magnifying lens. I mention this to illustrate how we depend on technology to tell us when and when not to take certain actions.

I know that driving in fog is dangerous and deceptive but surely the drivers could see that it was foggy. Did they really need warning lights to tell them it was so? Only the train driver knows what he was thinking when he passed the warning light. Maybe these things go wrong and he thought "Oh no, that's giving the wrong signal again". I'm not advocating that we ban the use of technology to help us navigate our daily lives. What I am saying is that we shouldn't abrogate all personal responsibility for our actions. Common sense must temper the advice offered or, in the case of the fog warnings, not offered by these inanimate third parties. Would you drive across a set of green traffic lights without checking that the way ahead was clear?

A technological wedge is being driven between us and our own senses. The clock was the first step along this path. We suddenly started eating not because we were hungry but because it was one o'clock. The clock was a great idea because we were able to synchronise our activities. Could you imagine a school operating without some means of telling the time. Kids would turn up an hour or so after they woke up, they'd mooch into lessons that were just finishing and so on. Once again, there are two sides to the argument. The important thing seems to be to retain a sense of perspective.

Let's look at how external influences impair our judgement and decision making abilities. If you go for a run and start to feel knackered you stop until you get your breath back. Yet some people go for runs and rely on electronic pulse-monitoring gizmos to tell them when they're overdoing it. Other people are heavily into biofeedback to tell them what their bodies are up to. I'm sure that these two electronic aids to health and serenity work, but isn't there something rather bizarre about relying on an external piece of monitoring equipment to tell you what's going on inside your own body?

Perhaps someone will come up with an alcoholometer which, like the pulse monitor, will tell you when you've had enough. Forget green crystals and blowing in a bag. This would be an electronic, wrist watch sized device which hoots when you reach a predetermined level of insobriety. Now electronic devices are very reliable, or so I'm told, and people could save themselves the bother of counting their drinks, they could just wait for the hooter to go off and then stagger home. These devices would become very popular because they would take the burden of responsibility off the individual. But what happens when the hooter goes wrong or beer clags up the electronic circuitry? The owner of such a device will be so used to relying on the thing, the first indication that something is wrong is when he or she topples off the bar stool.

Take a more serious example where a fault in the device causes it to issue its warning at twice the legal limit. The owner, a driver, leaves the pub before his hooter goes off and then flattens a pedestrian. The police breathalyse him and discover him to be over the limit. Who will end up in court or prison? I think there's a fair bet that the driver will lay the blame at the alcoholometer manufacturer's door. That's the insanity of this trend.

I'm sure that the alcoholometer manufacturer will consider the driver quite mad if he depends solely on the device to tell him when he's had enough. In the same way I'm sure that the people developing sophisticated computer systems would not expect users to act solely on the results of its computations. I'm afraid that there are at least two reasons why people will. One is that it absolves them from personal responsibility: "blame the computer" has been and will continue to be the cry. The other is that the computations expected of these machines are becoming so complex that humans will eventually have no choice.