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Dangerous Technology

August 13, 2015

While basic science is pursued for the abstract reason of curiosity, humans pursue technology simply for the reason that it makes their lives easier and more pleasurable. Spinning is easier than hunting for obtaining clothing material, and the resulting product is more aesthetic. Agriculture is an advance over foraging, and writing exceeds the human capacity for memorization.

Metallurgy has been practiced for more than eight millennia, and the Romans mined silver and lead extensively to make various artifacts from goblets to pipes. Roman production of lead was about 80,000 tons per year at its peak. This leads us to the topic of this article, the dangers of technology, including unintended consequences.

Ingots of lead from the time of the Roman Empire

Ingots of lead from the time of the Roman Empire.

(Exhibit at the Museum of Cádiz, via Wikimedia Commons.)

As we now know, lead compounds are toxic.[1] As I wrote in a previous article (Antimicrobial Alloys, January 31, 2014), It's conjectured that one factor in the fall of the Roman Empire was the use of lead containers in the production of wine and the use of lead wine goblets by the ruling class.

As someone who has children, and now grandchildren, I see that "child-proofing" a home is much harder today than several decades ago, principally because of increased technology. In the past, you would just lock the cabinet containing the usual assortment of household chemicals under the kitchen sink. These "household" chemical would include such harsh substances as ammonium hydroxide ("ammonia"), sodium hydroxide (lye), and sodium hypochlorite (bleach).

Today, despite wireless technologies, there are cables everywhere, for things such as chargers, computer, and television connection. A child can chew on cables, get cables wrapped around his neck, or pull on a cable to topple a heavy television set. From 2000 to 2011, 349 people in the US, including 293 children, were killed when televisions, furniture, or appliances toppled over onto them.[2]

One technology of the modern age that's had a huge affect on our lifestyle and society is the automobile. Nearly everyone drives, nearly every house has a garage, and our landscape is scarred by highways. The automobile, and its cousin, the truck, has enabled suburban living by allowing people and goods to travel farther than before. Of course, a technology capable of moving thousands of kilograms of mass at a hundred kilometers per hour is a dangerous technology.

The number of traffic fatalities in the United States peaked at 52,627 in 1970, at which point a few safety technologies, such as seat belts, air bags, and advanced braking systems, became common equipment. The fatalities, although smaller in number, are still significant. An estimated 32,675 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2014,[3-4] and we can now add cellphones, the facilitator of distracted driving, to our list of dangerous technologies.

Figure caption

Motor vehicle fatalities from 1900 to the present. Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, graphed using Gnumeric. )

Surprisingly, the calendar, through the invention of the work week, has hidden dangers. More traffic accidents happen on weekends, a trend that's persisted for three decades or more, as shown in the following graph.

Figure caption

Not safe on Saturday.

Traffic fatalities are more likely to happen on weekends.

(Fig. 10 from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report in ref. 5.[5]

Click for larger image)

Scientists are people, too (a good slogan for a bumper sticker?), and many of my colleagues, all sober individuals, have had traffic accidents. As a few examples, one hit a deer on his evening commute, another skid into a utility pole, and yet another slid on ice into the back of a snow plow on our research campus. I was hit while making a turn at an intersection while on my way to a seminar on crystal growth. Yes, we suffer for our science.

As I wrote In a previous article (Unsafe at Any Speed, February 6, 2007), several famous scientists have been killed, or have had their lives changed, by an automobile accident. These include Lev Landau, Eugene (Gene) Shoemaker, Seymour Cray, Mary Ward, Rudolf Karl Luneburg, William Shockley, Arnold Sommerfeld, Max von Laue and John Schrieffer.

mathematician, John Forbes Nash, Jr., who was awarded the 1994 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, and his wife died in a May 23, 2015, automobile accident. Nash, who was the subject of the book, A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar and the subsequent film, was on the last leg of a trip to Norway, where he was awarded the 2015 Abel Prize.

Not all traffic accidents can be blamed on human error. Automobiles are complex machines having many failure mechanisms. Recently, many automobile manufacturers have been fined for slow action on safety recalls involving fuel tanks that ignite in rear-end collisions, ignition switches that turn off the engine unexpectedly, and floor mats that interfere with control pedals.[6-8] Even safety systems can be dangerous, as a recent air bag recall shows.[9]

The technological complexity of automobiles is rapidly increasing through the incorporation of more electronics and more control software. Now that hackers have conquered your home computer, they're going after your car. Two security researchers have illustrated that such a thing can happen by demonstrating a remote takeover of a Jeep Cherokee.[10-12] They accomplished their attack by injecting code into a digital audio broadcast received by the vehicle's radio system.[10] The attack, which allowed killing the engine and remotely activating or disabling the brakes, affects 1.4 million US vehicles. [11] A YouTube video has been posted of the demonstration.[12]

According to the recently published book, Future Crimes by Marc Goodman (Doubleday, February 24, 2015), after the hackers get your car, they'll go after your house and everything in it.[13] The enabling technology behind this new danger is the "Internet of Things" (IoT) future in which nearly everything will be connected to the Internet. I wrote about the IoT in a previous article (The Internet of Things, October 11, 2013).

Technology Roadmap for the Internet of Things.

A technology roadmap for the Internet of Things, as prepared for the US government in 2008. (Wikimedia Commons image, modified for clarity. Click image for a larger version)

Just as hackers and other nefarious organizations have been able to take control of desktop computers and industrial control systems, they can control nearly everything connected to the Internet. The problem is that even carefully designed software often contains flaws that are easily exploited to grant a hacker complete system control. Things become especially worrisome when the software controls an implanted medical device with wireless Internet connectivity designed for health monitoring and control of the device parameters.

Other elements of future technology with potential dangers are nanotechnology, biotechnology, and robotics. At least two people have been killed by industrial robots. As the reviewer of Future Crimes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writes, technology proceeds at an exponential pace, while our analysis of the consequences of those technologies is just incremental.[13] The Internet meme, "all your base are belong to us," is starting to acquire an expanded meaning.


  1. Lead, United States Environmental Protection Agency Web Site.
  2. U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission Press Release Number 13-066, December 13, 2012.
  3. Early Estimate of Motor Vehicle Traffic Fatalities in 2014, A Brief Statistical Summary, National Center for Statistics and Analysis, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Report DOT HS 812 160, June, 2015 (PDF File)
  4. Anders Longthorne, Rajesh Subramanian, and Chou-Lin Chen, "An Analysis of the Significant Decline in Motor Vehicle Traffic Fatalities in 2008," National Center for Statistics and Analysis, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Report DOT HS 811 346, June 2010 (PDF File).
  5. Cejun Liu Chou, Lin Chen, and Dennis Utter, "Trend and Pattern Analysis of Highway Crash Fatality By Month and Day," National Center for Statistics and Analysis, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Report DOT HS 809 855, March 2005 (PDF File).
  6. Jeff Plungis, "NHTSA Says Fiat Chrysler to Pay $105 Million Fine, Buy Back Some Vehicles," Bloomberg News, July 26, 2015.
  7. Chris Woodyard, "Fiat Chrysler agrees to record $105M fine over safety," USA Today, July 26, 2015.
  8. Fiat Chrysler recalls 703,000 vehicles in U.S. to fix ignition switches, Reuters, March 7, 2015.
  9. Everything you need to know about the Takata airbag recall, Consumer Reports, July 16, 2015.
  10. Fiat Chrysler recalls 1.4 million cars after Jeep hack, BBC News, July 24, 2015.
  11. Aaron Souppouris, "Fiat Chrysler recalls 1.4 million vehicles after remote hack," Engadget, July 24, 2015.
  12. Hackers Remotely Kill a Jeep on the Highway—With Me in It, YouTube Video by Wired, July 21, 2015.
  13. Rich Lord, "Book Review - 'Future Crimes': A sober warning about the Internet of Things," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 26, 2015.

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