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Standard Deviations: Of broken smartphones and driverless flying cars

By Mark Saal, Standard-Examiner - | Jun 23, 2019

I know I like to pretend that I’m this crotchety old Luddite who hates all the newfangled technology that the younger generations are embracing. (“Hey you punk kids, get off my VHS format!”)

But the fact of the matter is I’m actually quite — well, if not tech-savvy, certainly tech-competent. Or at the very least, tech-dependent.

I almost never watch over-the-air or cable television anymore, preferring to stream all of my programs via Netflix and HBO. I often use the self-checkout lanes at the grocery store, and I’m no longer freaked out when faced with the dreaded “Do-I-swipe-or-insert” credit card payment dilemma.

But above all else, I absolutely could not live without my smartphone.

I realized this last truth earlier in the week when the microphone on my Android phone suddenly stopped working. While I could hear callers, they couldn’t hear me. And if I tried looking something up on the internet by uttering the voice command “OK, Google,” my disembodied personal assistant completely ignored me.

As my phone had just turned two years old, I was bracing for the worst. More than one friend had already opined that the manufacturer probably inserted some sort of software bug that deactivated the mic once the phone was paid for, and I was probably going to be forced to upgrade to the latest and greatest smartphone.

Unable to function in daily life without a fully operational smartphone, I reluctantly headed for the Verizon store in Layton, resigned to the fact I was probably going to need a new phone.

After explaining my problem to the friendly sales associate at Verizon — Dax, I believe his name tag read — he took my broken phone from me.

“Let’s first make sure nothing is obstructing your microphone,” he said.

Dax got out one of those lighted scopes that doctors use to examine your ears, and peered through it into a slit on the bottom of my phone.

“Well, you’ve got a little lint in there,” he diagnosed. “Lemme clean it out for you and see if that helps.”

He pulled out an old toothbrush and began scrubbing it on the bottom of my phone. After about 20 seconds he looked through the scope again and said, “Let’s try that.”

Dax called my phone and, miracle of miracles, the microphone was working again.

My reason for telling you that story is twofold: 1) To point out that there are still decent salespersons out there who don’t try to take advantage of others, and 2) to let you know that I’m not just some technology-hating Chicken Little when I say this next part:


How do I know this? It’s based on three bits of random information in the news this past week:

RANDOM INFO BIT NO. 1: Farmington’s Station Park currently has a driverless car shuttling people around the retail hub. The robot car is part of an “Autonomous Shuttle Pilot Project” launched by the Utah Department of Transportation and the Utah Transit Authority. It will be running — well, crawling, really; its maximum speed is 15 mph — at Station Park through July 6.

RANDOM INFO BIT NO. 2: While UDOT and UTA are busy testing driverless cars, aviation companies are going these agencies one better by testing driverless flying cars. For example, Airbus is currently developing the battery-powered Vahana, a single-seat autonomous air taxi that takes off vertically, like a helicopter, then rotates its wings to fly at more than 100 mph.

RANDOM INFO BIT NO. 3: The city council in Riviera Beach, Florida, recently agreed to pay $600,000 to “ransomware” hackers who took over the city’s computer system. So much for the notion that you never negotiate with terrorists.

So then, what do these three stories have in common? Connect the dots, people.

The human servants of these computer overlords would have us believe that driverless vehicles are actually safer than those piloted by humans. Indeed, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 94 percent of all vehicle accidents are caused by human error. Therefore, it would seem logical that taking humans out of the equation — a la self-driving cars and aircraft — could only make travel safer.

Still, there’s something more than a little unsettling about completely placing one’s life in the cold, robotic hands of a computer. Because if there’s one thing both “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the “Terminator” movies taught us, it’s that only suckers trust machines and their artificial intelligence.

Sure, in a mall taxi that tops out at 15 mph it may not seem that life-threatening to be arguing with HAL over opening the pod bay doors. But in an aircraft flying thousands of feet in the air, at speeds upwards of 100 mph?

If a little piece of lint can take down my smartphone so easily, imagine what a determined computer hacker could do to a driverless flying car.


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