A Few Electrons too Many

Adding electronics to systems that used to be mechanical has been the great wave of innovation for a quite a while now. Modern transportation just would not work without all the electronics and computers inside (someone once quipped that a modern fighter is just a plastic airplane full of software), and so much convenience has been provided by automation and smarts driven by electronics. However, this also introduces brand new ways that things can break, and sometimes I wonder if we really are not setting ourselves up for major problems when the electrons stop flowing.

I was confronted with a particularly silly example the other day at the gym. There was a handwritten note taped to the wall next to the tap in the locker room, saying essentially that “This tap does not work since the battery is out. Facilities services have been notified and should fix this shortly.”

What? A water tap that does not work since its battery got depleted? What about attaching it to mains power? Or even just making it mechanical, using some kind of directly acting mechanical actuator to turn the water on and off? Or just having a manual override or emergency actuator? This was not a life-or-death situation, but it did showcase the vulnerability of electrically powered machinery when the power goes out. We have far too many of these unnecessarily electronic system in society today. I think we need to think more about robustness and less about convenience.

A few days later, I was pointed at an example that could actually be life-or-death. The Littmann Electronic stethoscope. As you can see on the right, the sensor part of this device has an on/off switch, a small display, and some buttons to control its many functions. It does add some really useful features to the device. With electronics, you can do noise reduction and bring out the essential sounds from the background. Collected sounds can be transmitted to a computer for recording, storing, and analysis. It is a very good example of how electronics can enhance and in many ways transform a traditional instrument by making it so much smarter. A completely brilliant product development that I could see myself being part of developing. But.

Battery dead, device inoperable.

A classic stethoscope is a nicely mechanical device that a doctor can use anywhere, anytime, with no need for a hospital, electricity, or any other facility. I find that very reassuring (probably having read too much disaster recovery and war history literature). Imagine the situation in the emergency room when a doctor has to stop looking after a patient to chase a new battery for their stethoscope (please hold it right there…). Maybe it should have had a mechanical backup. Or maybe it is simply a matter of thinking about the tools of the trade before going out into the bush where spare batteries will not be found.

Speaking about batteries, the most obvious example of big problems due to an empty battery is the modern smartphone. A friend of mine pointed out that unless you keep your phone charged during the day in the office, it might not have enough battery left on the way home to get you home. Why? Since the way to buy tickets for the commuter train is to use an app on the smartphone. Seems convenient, and is convenient, but the number of ways that this can break is scary when you think about it. Apart from local failure on the phone (in particular, finding a modern phone with a battery that can survive a day of use is hard), you also rely on the phone network and the sales servers all being online at the same time. If any link fails, it will make it a bit harder to get home (or to work, for that matter).

Overall, I guess my feeling is that we need to think a bit more about how to build systems that are robust in the face of power failures and network failures. A bit of mechanical backup does not hurt, and avoiding some features to preserve robustness would seem prudent.

2 thoughts on “A Few Electrons too Many”

  1. Just one quick thought…

    “What about attaching it to mains power? ”

    I can see one or two issues with connecting a water tap directly to mains power; none of which have happy endings. 🙂

  2. OK. Mains power via transformer. There are such options in the product lines I researched for this article, typically transformed down to 12 V.

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