Big Brother aside, avoid messing with machines


POSTED: Sunday, May 31, 2009

Good intentions or not, nobody likes a back-seat driver.

Nothing offends our independent natures faster than someone stepping on our toes—a visiting relative who grabs the TV remote like it's his own, a grandmother who glares at every grain of salt we add to the pasta sauce, or an artificial intelligence in space calibrating our every move for our own good.

Having trouble relating to that last one? Well, it was the source of conflict between HAL and astronauts Frank and Dave in Arthur C. Clarke's “;2001: A Space Odyssey.”; For those who missed the movie, HAL (a mild-mannered if coldhearted computer hard-wired into a spaceship) eventually kicked his carbon-based cohorts to the cold, vacuous, infinite curb of space.

But while Clarke's promises of deep-space missions and monoliths full of stars are, by my watch, eight years late and counting, HAL's busy-body predecessors have arrived, at least in Britain.

According to the Daily Mail, London will soon test an Intelligent Speed Adaption system for cars. It is a GPS-based network that will instruct vehicles to ignore any foot's command to surpass speed limits. The plainly stated goal is a nationwide scheme to install devices on all cars in an effort to reduce accidents.

Shocking? It shouldn't be. The more technology strives to augment our childishly misspent powers of concentration, the more those very abilities atrophy, creating a vicious cycle where more and more technology seems necessary to preserve the common good.

Consider this: Harris Interactive released a survey that said 89 percent of U.S. adults support laws that ban driving while texting, while at the same time 66 percent of those who had both a car and a smart phone admitted to doing that very thing.

If laws can't stop texting while driving, maybe a satellite can at least stop speeding while texting.

BUT AS gadgets keep softening the edges on everyday scrapes, an expectation grows that scrapes are nothing more than a system malfunction that infringes on OUR inalienable right to be saved from ourselves.

Letting kids scrawl on walls thanks to Crayola Washable Crayons sounds great, until you consider they might grow up to think nothing of a $1,200 annual fee to Scotch Guard the entire University of Florida campus.

John Stuart Mill, a 19th-century British philosopher, once wrote, “;The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”;

Proponents of the new British driving system might argue that it passes Mill's test, reducing the number of innocent victims in accidents and at least delaying the fate of countless idiots destined to become costly wards of the state (much like the implied purpose of seat belt and helmet laws already on the books).

Using that logic, however, almost any activity could lead one to become a “;ward of the state.”; You can Jet Ski until you become a ward of the state. You can read difficult Russian poetry until you go berserk and become a ward of the state. You can even make huge, gas-guzzling Oldsmobiles while suppressing innovation in a destructive, selfish effort to protect your own moneyed interests until you become a ward of the state.

Clearly, back-seat drivers, be they in your gene pool or in geosynchronous orbit, need watching of their own. Otherwise, they might turn us into what we most despise. Remember, from HAL's point of view, it was Frank and Dave who where stepping on HIS turf.

And we all know how that turned out.


Follow columnist Curt Brandao's Twitter feed at www.twitter.com/digitalslob.