I am reading a book right now called Robopocalypse. It is a cross between World War Z (the book) and The Terminator. It is a faux-historical account of a genocidal war between AI robots and humanity. It is, for the most part, good. I’m a fan of sci-fi and this is well done.
Reading it brings me to a point that both annoys and frightens the hell out of me: the lack of a manual override.
This comes across in sci-fi and real live one of two ways:
- There is no manual override when there obviously should be.
- There is a manual override and it get ignored because… plot.
In the beginning of Robopocalypse, scientists create an AI program. It becomes sentient and decides to wipe out humanity. OK, I’ve seen this plot a number of times before. You find out that the scientists have created this same AI a bunch of times before, it always wants to wipe out humanity, so they delete it and start over. On the last try, it “escapes” the system it was programmed in as a computer virus, etc., etc. Here’s the thing. The scientist in the lab, talking with the AI, has a “fail-safe” that is supposed to shut down the system. The AI compromises the “fail-safe” which means it’s not a real fail-safe.
Now, I’m not a computer engineer, so I don’t think digitally. If you said to me “J.Kb. there is a computer, in an underground lab, not hooked up to the outside world, and we put an infinitely intelligent, homicidal AI in it, and you need to design a fail-safe to keep it from getting out.” You know what I would do? Explosives. Explosives in the machine, attached to det-cort, attached to a firing device on the scientist’s desk. You know why? It is 100% un-hackable.
I see this same crap over, and over, and over again.
I can’t tell you how many TV shows I’ve seen where the plot of the episode is: hacker hacks something and uses it to kill people. This drives me up the wall and onto the ceiling. So the hacker uses his hacking ability to lock the people into the building. Then the hacker threatens to release poisonous gas into the building to kill everyone. First of all, who connects a poisonous gas line to the ventilation system when designing a building? But what really gets me screaming at my TV is WHERE IS THE SAFETY CHECK VALVE? I’ve worked around dangerous chemicals my entire adult life. You know what? When you have a line carrying flammable liquid or toxic gas, there is always, always, always a manual shutoff.
Character: “The hacker has locked us in the building, there is no way out.”
Me: “Seriously? There isn’t one emergency exit that has a manual door push-bar for fire or power outages? That got built to code?”
Character: “OH MY GOD, THE HACKER IS GOING TO FLOOD THE BUILDING WITH HALON!!!”
Me: “THERE SHOULD BE A KNOB ON THE HALON TANK, RIGHTLY TIGHTY LEFTY LOOSEY YOU FREAKING MORON!”
Don’t believe me? That was the plot of the Scorpion episode, Cliffhanger. Except instead of Halon, it was Sarin that was going to be pumped through the ventilation system. No, not kidding. First, who was the HVAC engineer that agreed to plug a container of Sarin into the AC unit? And who was the building inspector that signed off on that without some sort of manual shutoff valve?
As the idea of smart houses becomes more and more real, the idea of a hacker murdering someone with their smart home becomes a plot point. The very excellent sci-fi show Almost Human did an episode on this called Disrupt. If I’m going to have a smart house, there is going to be an good-ol’-fashioned deadbolt on at least one door.
Wife: “Honey, hackers have locked us into the house. They say if we don’t hand over all the jewelry, they will turn up the heat and roast us all to death.”
Me: (Walks over to back door) *click* (walks out of house).
Now, sometimes there is a manual override, and everybody conveniently forgets about it. In that episode of Scorpion, the Scorpion team is running around trying to out hack the hacker before they all die. Again, not being a computer engineer, I’m curious why nobody decided just to trip the breaker on the smart building’s computer? No power, no hacking.
This was infuriating in Die Hard 2 when the terrorists raised the floor on the airport ground approach system to crash a plane. Here’s the thing; airport runways are equipped with Visual Approach Slope Indicators. These are lights that can only be seen at certain angles, so a pilot knows that he is on the right approach angle and how far from the runway by the lights visible from the cockpit. These lights are bright enough to be seen in any weather, like an airport lighthouse. This system is designed so that no matter what the autopilot does, the pilot can still look out the window and see that he is approaching the runway correctly and judge the distance to ground. Except in the case, of Die Hard 2, the pilot was asleep at the stick or something, for purposes of plot. This many not exactly be a manual override, but it is a way for a pilot to land with all his instruments out.
Yes, I know. I’m ranting about books, TV, and movies. If I had my way, there would be no plot and so I have to accept this for the sake of the story. Except that life is imitating art.
A pair of hackers (security consultants) figured out how to hack a Jeep using the internet comparable entertainment system. Using the auto-park, they can control the steering and breaks. They could pretty much drive the car remotely. This was right out of the The Sontaran Stratagem episode of Doctor Who, except the Sontarans use the remote control of carts to kill people. With Drive-by-Wire tech, it is even easier to control the car by hacking the ECU.
But forget hacking for a second. My dad had a 2015 Mercedes with drive-by-wire. A piece of construction debris fell off the back of a truck in front of him on I-95. He ran it over. Killed the car. At 60 MPH he had no steering. The engine shut off and he lost his drive-by-wire and electronic power steering.
I had my 2003 Chevy truck cut out on me once while at speed. Clogged fuel filter. I lost engine power. I could still steer and break. Steel on steel on steel on rubber on asphalt. No power meant that I lost the hydraulic assist to my power steering, but the mechanical linkage was still there. Manual override.
BMW has no manual override in its security system. When you lock a BMW from the outside, it is locked. If you are inside, you are trapped. The door handles, lock buttons, they don’t do anything without the car unlocked. The ECU cuts control and there is no mechanical linkage to manually unlock the car. If a grown woman can die from being locked inside a car, you know you made an unsafe design.
I have two gun safes. One has a nice digital lock on it for quick access. The other has an all mechanical S&G lock. My collection is split between the two safes, so that no matter what happens, I still have access to guns by spinning a dial. You can’t hack or EMP gears and tumblers.
Red dots are getting cheaper and getting better everyday. Optics make shooting easier and have made getting into shooting easier. But batteries die, glass cracks, and sometimes electronics don’t handle cold weather. I’m not going to deride optics, but all my defensive guns have irons on them.
It saddens me that so many new guns come with such terrible iron sights, especially .22 rifles. Shooting with irons is an invaluable skill. If you can hit with irons, you can hit with optics, the reverse is not true. A fundamental skill of every shooter, especially every shooter who keeps a gun for self defense is the ability to hit a clay pigeon size target at, at least 15 yds with a pistol and 50 yards with a rifle using iron sights. I know it’s not tacticool, but if Sergeant Alvin York could capture a German battalion with a bolt gun and peep sights, you should be able to do a little better than just hit the broadside of a barn with the same.
I know. By know I’ve ranted myself way off course. I get that digital technology is great and all. It has made our lives better in many ways; and as an engineer, it would be hypocritical to not embrace new technology. But as good as digital technology is IT NEEDS TO COME WITH A D—N MANUAL OVERRIDE!!!