Automation must have a stop

5 September 2002

On separate pages of one and the same edition of a daily newspaper I found different, remarkable, reports of robotic progress. One was about a human patient's gall bladder operation by a robot in Strasbourg, France, under remote human control from a console in New York, USA. The operation was claimed to be the first telesurgery ever to succeed over such a great distance.

The other report was of an automaton, invented by two eighteen-year-old Northern Irish boys. Their artefact draws power from overhead transmission cables to propel itself along them and scare off the birds whose droppings might otherwise corrode cars and infect washing.

These stories are vivid examples of how the technologies of electrical power and robotics nourish each other, although the wirewalking scarecrows are cute but relatively minor instances of automation in power systems.

Suppose that automata were to invade and pervade our industry much more strongly than they have done, taking over at pebblecounting as well as at engineering and operating levels. What if managerial robots governed systems with a concentration on the bottom line much more exclusive even than the focus of the most ferocious flesh-and-blood managers?

You can sense the danger of this if you consider the telesurgery story. Telesurgery is totally subject to human supervision and intervention. A surgeon's hand (most of us prefer to believe) would not be guided solely by thoughts of how fat its owner's fees would be.

Could, should or would professional ethics, or humanity of any kind, be programmed into what is theoretically feasible - a wholly integrated, wholly automatic, wholly commercial power system?

Watch this space

For almost as long as I can remember, oil has been going to run out in two or three generations, electric cars and buses have been within a few years of supplanting combustion-engined vehicles, power from winds, waves, tides, solar cells, fuel cells and fast breeder reactors has been getting nearly cheap enough to compete, and 'the hydrogen economy' has been promising to conquer all.

Now Iceland is said to have committed itself to hydrogen fuelling and zero CO2 emission. Buses, cars, fishing vessels - in that order - are to be converted accordingly. Then hydrogen is to be exported to Europe. And all done in thirty years.

It is possible. Look out for a retrospect in MPS for September 2032, marvelling at the scepticism of the journal's columnist, Wollensky, three decades previously.

Fundamentalists can be funny

In some anglophone parts of the world there is a popular linguistic curlicue that could too flatteringly be called 'basic' phrasing. In those parts of the world nothing is ever done daily any more, only on a daily basis. Workers are no longer paid hourly, staff monthly, managers yearly or power engineers poorly, only on bases so qualified.

If a keep-fit expert advises you to jog for jollity, he tells you to take the exercise on a regular basis, and even well-spoken dietitians find it syntactically too simplistic to recommend that your meals be taken regularly. Information is not in fundamentalist regions imparted confidentially, for it can with more deep-seated secrecy be whispered on a confidential basis.

School teachers seem occasionally to have fallen in with this bizarre fashion. I cite in evidence a note found in a young pupil's exercise book. The child's sentences were presumably to an extent pedagogically inspired. They were as follows. Thomas Edison was a famous American inventor. He discovered how to manufacture light artificially on an electrical basis.

Lessons are not just for juniors

In a certain globally respected scientific research laboratory there is analytical installation so formidable that, were it on an industrial site, it would be called plant. Its title and function involve - whisper it - radiation.

A group of schoolchildren was visiting the installation. In the control room the youngsters were shown how the crew managed the radiation beam. Then, lightheartedly, they were invited to work the remote control cameras: see whether you can find a leak, the crew challenged. To the hosts' consternation the juveniles obliged. They discovered an escape of water so great that the installation had to be shut down for repair.

Lots of lessons there for complacent controllers of all sorts of plants!

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