Use Your Head: Don’t Be Seduced By Technology

Even when using the most sophisticated tools, human judgment is actually required.

On October 5, 1960, the United States almost went to war with the Soviet Union.

In the previous spring, the U.S. had begun installing its Ballistic Missile Early Warning System in Thule, Greenland. The purpose of BMEWS was to warn the U.S. of a Soviet missile attack. And by early autumn, the Thule facility was operational.

Just in time. On Oct. 5, Thule’s radar reported that dozens of missiles, apparently launched from Siberia, were headed towards North America. NORAD headquarters in Colorado was immediately notified, where, above a map of the globe, a number flashed, indicating the level of the threat. It started at 1, the lowest level but soon advanced to 2, then 3, next 4, and finally 5—the maximum threat level, which meant there was a 99.9 percent chance the United States was being attacked.

Within minutes, the Air Force had to make a decision.

Fortunately, NORAD’s vice commander, the highest ranking officer at headquarters, asked a useful question: “Where’s Khrushchev?” The question was easy to answer. He was at the United Nations in New York. It didn’t seem likely that the U.S.S.R. would attack the U.S. while the first secretary of its Communist Party was, himself, in the country.

Still, the radar signals could not be dismissed. NORAD had to notify the President. First, however, headquarters had to talk directly with officials at Thule. And when NORAD’s call went through to a captain there, he requested a chance to check for a technical malfunction. He soon concluded that the signals being picked up by the radar came not from an armada of missiles. The radar’s signals were bouncing off the moon.

You may not have known this, but you should be personally very happy that a real, intelligent human realized that the computer’s program was deficient. It lacked the ability to track the location of the moon.

Today, of course, we humans believe whatever our computers tell us. We trust the computer in our dashboard or our smartphone to give us directions. Often this is helpful. Sometimes it can be dangerous.

When one woman’s GPS told her to turn right onto a train track, she obeyed. But her van became stuck on the tracks. She and her two children barely escaped before a commuter train demolished her van.

Albert and Rita Chretien weren’t so lucky. Driving from British Columbia to Las Vegas, they decided to take a scenic route. But they couldn’t find a road back to I-93. So they asked their GPS for advice. It recommended a dirt road, which the couple took. The road, however, was headed towards some snow-topped mountains. And, as day turned to night, the Chretiens couldn’t see where they were headed.

It was “a pretty good road,” the local sheriff observed, that “slowly goes bad.” Rita survived. Albert did not. This all-too-common behavior now has a nickname: “Death by GPS.”

It isn’t just clueless tourists who blindly follow their GPS devices. In Vermont, professional truck drivers do it all too frequently. At both ends of the scenic—but narrow and winding—Notch Road, is a sign: “Tractor Trailers Prohibited.” Truckers ignore the warning. They obey their GPS.

Then, once a month, one of them gets stuck, requiring the Vermont Agency of Transportation to close the highway, while it removes the offending truck or tour bus.

Stanislas Dehaene, a French mathematician who shifted to neuroscience, observed in his book The Number Sense: “In domains in which the computer excels—the faultless execution of a long series of logical steps—our brain turns out to be slow and fallible. Conversely, in domains in which computer science meets its most serious challenges—shape recognition and attribution of meaning—our brain shines by its extraordinary speed.”

We do not, however, always appreciate the difference. Sometimes, our unthinking reliance on technology is dumb and fatal. Other times, it is merely amusing.

Years ago, when your daily newspaper printed its first edition, someone proofed it for the inevitable typos. With financial constraints, however, newspapers appear to have eliminated this step. How do I know? Because the Boston Globe’s hyphenation software makes numerous mistakes: My favorites include: “microf-racture,” “Cooper-stown,” “Tri-pAdvisor,” “legislation,” “casel-oad” and “iP-hone.” The Globe even hy-phenated a onesyllable word: Fly–nn.

Indeed, the problem seems to plague every newspaper. Here’s one from The New York Times: “pos-tracial.” The Economist had two on one page: “star-tup” and “Skille-dUp.”

Word-processing software always comes with a dictionary that can be updated whenever a word is added or an error is discovered. So why did my local paper twice hyphenate the nickname of the University of Massachusetts as “UM-ass”?