20 December 2011

It doesn’t get its own ideas

Since 1958, the Netherlands has undertaken an enormous series of projects called Delta Works, to build storm surge barriers and dams to protect their land from flooding. One of the most recently completed structures was Maeslantkering (or Maeslant barrier), a storm surge barrier consisting of two enormous curved arms that close together when necessary to protect the port of Rotterdam. The barrier is one of the largest moving structures in the world.


Maeslantkering

What grabbed my attention about this project is how they have a computer system, Beslis & Ondersteunend Systeem (BOS), which is responsible for making the decision about whether to close the barriers in a storm. The computer takes into account weather readings from nearby stations and buoys located in the channels near the barrier.

According to the Delta Works website:

The Maeslantkering is operated by a computer. In the case of a storm flood, the decision of whether or not to close the barrier is left to a computer system (BOS). The chance of mistakes is greatly increased if people were to make the decision. A computer will only follow predefined procedures, it doesn’t get its own ideas and it is not affected by poor environmental conditions.

Now that we’re entrusting computers to make such crucial decisions better than any human could, I suppose it won’t be long before we have computers deciding that humans are simply better off out of the equation.

My advice: when discussing your plans to upgrade to a new phone, make sure Siri isn’t listening.