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''Because the Computer Said So...''

Tue, 11/22/2011 - 5:41am
Dave Wilson, Motion Products Evangelist, Texas Instruments

Dave (Wisconsin) WilsonOver the course of my 32 year career, I have seen the personal computer evolve from a Commodore VIC-20, to the dual core mobile workstation I am writing this blog with. From 1980 until now, on-board RAM has increased by over five orders of magnitude, and computing speeds have increased by over four orders of magnitude! These changes have catapulted the personal computer into a position of tremendous respect in our society. For the engineer, the computer has become a mandatory tool for doing our jobs. Whenever I am separated from my computer, even for a little while, I feel like a Borg that has been disconnected from the collective!

If we have come this far in 32 years, you have to wonder where we will be in another 32 years? In his New York Times Bestselling book "The Singularity is Near", futurist Ray Kurzweil (that's right, the same guy who invented the electronic synthesizer) provides a provocative answer to this question. He predicts that computer science will merge with biological science to give birth to a race of cybernetically enhanced humans with superhuman powers. Indeed, imagine upgrading your body's operating system to "Human 3.0", which contains 2 terabytes of non-volatile memory, allowing your brain to instantly access the internet, or immediately recall the latest GPS map of the planet, or to mentally recall the number for anybody, and dial them automatically. He states that humans who refuse to undergo this procedure will be left behind in society as handicapped citizens. On-line reviews of the book by several "Singularitans" indicate that many in our society are waiting for this "next phase of human evolution" with open arms!

I, for one, am not! Perhaps it is because I'm getting old, and the thought of someone installing chunks of cybernetic components in my brain scares the "you know what" out of me! But I also think it is because I have developed a healthy distrust of computers. I have seen first hand the colossal blunders that can result when humans put too much trust in computers. For example, in my last job as a Field Applications Engineer, I was working with a younger engineer who was moving forward with a power monitoring design based on simulation results he had obtained from his computer. As I reviewed the results, an alarm went off in the back of my head, as the results seemed to defy reality! But the engineer was undaunted. Armed with his impressive computer printout, he believed that his computer was telling the truth. It took several hours of reviewing his equations before I finally located the bug, and together we reworked the simulation to provide realistic results, and avoided a potentially disastrous expenditure of manpower down the road.  

Simulation Complete

If you read my last blog, "In the Event of an Actual Emergency..." you know that I embrace the prospect of more powerful simulation tools, especially as they apply to motor control project development. Using these future tools correctly will result in much shorter design cycles, with the end product being much more robust and better tested. But NOTHING can replace the human element! I will stake my reputation on this! Just because the computer says so doesn't mean you should rush off to production with a potentially fatally flawed design. The computer's answers must be tempered with human experience, and regulated by YOUR perception of reality, not "virtual" reality. I am targeting you younger engineers out there with this message, as I suspect many older engineers have already figured this out. If you don't have the necessary experience to challenge the computer in a battle of wits, then seek out an older engineer with experience in motor control, who can provide valuable insights into whether you are watching a viable system response, or a computer generated fantasy. In time, you will be able to trust your own intuition, and no amount of circuits can ever replace that!

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