The problem with technology? Humans

Two stories in the news this week reveal anew a problem in our technological age: humans.

We spend a lot of time worrying about the impact of artificial intelligence and our robot overlords and with good reason. Humans haven’t been entirely wiped out of the process that makes them work.

Here are two examples:

On Election Day, the wrong candidates were winning in early returns in Roseville and Maplewood. A candidate for council in Maplewood who’s been arrested five times was steamrolling a long-time community advocate, for example, tipping off people that something was up.

Something was, Ramsey County Elections Manager Joe Mansky told the Pioneer Press. Humans.

“I wouldn’t even begin to make an excuse. Software is run by people. Ultimately, it’s a person problem, and we’ll deal with that, and make sure we do better proofing before election day,” said Mansky, who plans to ask the Secretary of State’s office to help set up more trial runs.

“We’d like to do earlier testing,” Mansky said. “We’re not quite sure if the state will make their website available to us. We’d like to test this uploading process well before election day. Right now their site is open for testing fairly close to the election. It would be helpful to us if we had a wider window of time.”

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported, the cause of an outage in 911 in Minnesota last week has been determined. Take a guess.

According to the agency, CenturyLink, Minnesota’s 911 service provider, said human error by a third-party vendor caused the outage.

CenturyLink says an employee of West Safety Services made a mistake while making a network configuration change. The error prevented 911 calls from being accepted in the three states.

  • >>On Election Day, the wrong candidates were winning in early returns in Roseville and Maplewood.<<

    I'm glad we have paper ballots as a backup here in MN…

    • jon
      • davidz

        #2030 is completely correct. I work in the software industry, building highly specialized devices, often under medical regulatory requirements. I know what’s possible, and I’ve seen how computerized voting systems vendors have designed their products.

        If someone offers you computer voting, run. Run fast. Run far.

        If someone offers you Internet voting, that’s even worse.

        While paper ballots aren’t perfect, they generally require multiple steps that require physical access to subvert. Networked computers can be attacked from anywhere, invisibly.

  • davidz

    The problems here are not with the humans that were blamed. The problematic humans are the ones that allowed these systems to be set up with obvious weaknesses in the first place.

    I’ve made network configuration changes before. Any place where it’s mattered, I’ve done so in a system that has tests that can be run to verify that the right changes have been made and that they don’t screw up existing functionality. Blaming a human for making a typo and thus downing 911 services is not reasonable. People will make mistakes, and you have got to design things to handle those mistakes.

    If the Elections Office just accepts reports from anyone who knows the “sooper sekrit” phone number, that’s just a bad idea. That information gets out (I’m sure YOU never get calls from someone to whom you have not given your number). The system should include information that can be used to authenticate the source. For elections, we have a system of paper ballots (yay!) and canvassing boards to validate the correctness of information that had been previously transmitted.

    The problem with humans? Passing the buck.

    • Matthew

      100% agree. Reminds me of the recent mistaken “inbound missiles” public safety alert in Hawaii. If horrible things can happen due to one person’s simple mistake, the systems you’ve built are the actual problem.

    • John

      I agree with you, almost completely.

      I’d add that the other problem with humans is that, as apes go, we’re awfully creative, and there are a lot of us. What that ends up meaning to me is that any system we create will be broken in ways that the system’s creators never considered.

      “It’s better to make things fool resistant than idiot proof. Idiots evolve.”
      -Russian proverb I just made up.

      • davidz

        I like your “Russian proverb”.

        Resilience is an important part of systems design. If there’s a single point of failure, it will fail. If you build in redundancy, you’ll be much less susceptible to failure.

        But redundancy is expensive, and very few entities like to spend the money is takes (why do you two routers? You’re only using one at a time. Just put one in, and it’ll be fine. Until it isn’t, the 911 system is down, and the incident makes the front page).

        You want to know why military systems are so expensive? They tend to have a LOT of redundancy and extra safety mechanisms. You really don’t want the bomb to blow up at any time other than when you explicitly ask for it to go boom.

        • John

          Absolutely – don’t mistake my cynical attitude to mean we shouldn’t try. Just that there’s no such thing as an unbreakable system made by humans.

          Mechanical/redundancy/safety are all easy (though expensive) to build in. Humans intent on causing problems (or ineptitude) are tougher to predict. We try, and we mostly succeed, but there’s always somebody who’s devious or differently inept. 🙂

      • AL287

        >> What that ends up meaning to me is that any system we create will be
        broken in ways that the system’s creators never considered.<<

        The 9/11 attacks come to mind here.

        The architects who designed the twin towers never expected a fully fueled jet airliner to fly into one let alone two. A small plane yes but not an airliner.

        The heat of the explosion and burning jet fuel quickly burned through the protective coating on the girders and rafters causing them to buckle and ultimately collapse.

        The rest, sadly is history.

  • MarkUp

    For those of you who think a paper ballot system is fool proof, here’s some reading:
    https://www.heritage.org/election-integrity/report/where-theres-smoke-theres-fire-100000-stolen-votes-chicago

    To cherry-pick a quote:
    “Good reporting by the local media helped fuel the investigation.”

    • Jack Ungerleider

      I don’t think anyone would argue that paper ballots are fool proof. Ballot box stuffing was a time honored practice in the days of machine politics. (The Daley machine in Chicago being one of the last “great” machines.)

      But one can modify the famous Churchill quote on democracy and get what is probably the correct sentiment:
      “Paper ballots are the worst way to vote except for all the others.”

  • MrE85

    We had some technical glitches at the precinct I worked at in Blaine. This year Anoka County moved to the tablet-like Pollpads for checking on voter registration and signing people in. Quite a few of the electronically entered records listed voters birth dates as “1900.” We never figured out why some people had the wrong info and others didn’t, but it took extra time to fix when it popped up.

    In the end, we figured out the fix and everyone got a chance to vote who wanted to,

  • Brian Simon

    Biking to work today, i approached a stop sign next to a pickup truck. As we slowed, a car turned towards us from a side street. The driver, fixated on their phone, nearly drove head-on into the pickup…

    Whoops!