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Friday, June 4, 2010

Remote Technology With Disastrous Consequences

I'm back!  After a month away dealing with all of the thousands of details of moving, we are finally in our new home in North Carolina.  Enough of the boxes are now unpacked -- there are many, many more -- that I can start to think once again about Technology Almanac.  I have missed having the time to write  and I hope enough of you kept the link active while I have been offline.

The technology story that has been dominating the news for the last six weeks is, of course, the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.  It isn't known for sure yet just what happened to cause the explosion and sinking of the drill ship but when the details come out I am sure it will look remarkably like every major accident: a series of cumulative, small errors that collectively set up a very big, negative outcome.  If you have had trouble envisioning all the various attempts to cap the well, I would recommend you take a look at a really nice graphic on the New York Times website.  It shows all the various attempts that have been made over the last six weeks to stem the flow of oil.

This story got me to thinking about a larger theme that has emerged as we develop ever more sophisticated technologies: remote technology.  Here are just a few examples that come to mind.

  • We are now able to land and control a vehicle on the surface of Mars and have it explore the soil with remote shovels, probes, and test instruments.
  • We are able to perform surgeries without opening the patient's body by using small cameras and laparoscopic instruments.
  • We have bomb disabling equipment that can be remotely controlled to deactivate an explosive.
  • We have drone military aircraft controlled by a pilot seated ten thousand miles away from the scene of the conflict can use to attack an enemy target.
If I thought about it awhile longer, I am sure I could come up with more.  The theme of all these is that the site of control is separated from the site of effect.  In the surgery example, the surgeon can quickly abandon his laparoscopic approach and revert to traditional open techniques if he or she runs into a big problem.  But the Predator drone and the Mars lander cannot be brought back under local control.  There is just no way to be "local".  The same is true of the deep-water oil wells.  There is no way for humans to be able to go down there and work directly on the equipment.

Remote technology is an absolutely terrific advance in cases where the benefits outweigh the risks.  If the Mars lander craps out, we lose scientific data and have an expensive piece of junk cluttering up the Martian surface.  But some of these technologies can have catastrophic consequences if there is a failure at the site of action.  I am sure that BP, Transocean, and Halliburton all thought they had adequate contingency plans in place to prevent this disaster.  The very presence of a Blowout Preventer shows that they anticipated such events.  But people are people and businesses constantly put pressure on those on the front lines to reduce costs and increase profits.  The head of BP would never consciously tell the people on the drill ship to cut corners that would compromise safety.  But the subtle pressure to deliver results on time and below costs leads to shortcuts.  So does complacency. Most of the time, you can get away with it.  They did for twenty years.  But it only takes one accident to put in stark relief the consequences of taking the chance.  Even though the odds of failure might have been small, the cost of failure was enormous.  That ratio calls for extreme prudence.

I hope they can get this thing under control sooner rather than later.  And I hope that there is a very thorough analysis of everything leading up to the disaster before any further deep-water drilling is allowed in any U.S. waters.  You can be sure that if we return to deep-water drilling, the cost of drilling those wells will be much, much higher to factor in better risk containment technology.  But the cost, whatever it might be, will be cheaper than the costs to the environment and the people whose lives are directly effected by the oil that is now polluting their waters and fouling their shores.  And it might just make us think twice about all the oil that we so thoughtlessly consume.

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