[EAS]Complexity & Ethics

pjk pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Wed Feb 27 08:14:00 EST 2002

Subject:   Complexity & Ethics

Dear Colleagues -

The main precept of professional engineering licensing is to protect a
lay public unable to vouchsafe technical competence and safety. It has
its roots in civil engineering where, say, a town's safety must be
protected in the design of its water supply. Honesty, competence and
foresight vis-a-vis contingencies are the qualities sought for
professional engineers, and ought to apply to all engineer.

But the likelihood of technological malignancy increases greatly in
areas of rapidly spreading technology whose complexity far outstrips
the honorable intentions and pace of professional registration. And I
am not primarily concerned about unethical behavior, though that
happens also, but about an increasingly large web of technological
operations locally envisioned and happily interconnected on a much
larger scale, with ever greater Internet communications speed "turning
up the gain of all the feedback loops." The survey

The Real-Time Economy

deserves your attentive reading with that concern in mind. And if you
want to add a few highlights, consider e.g.

Contracts So Complex They Imperil the System

In November 1965 we had the big East Coast power blackout because the
stability of power distribution networks was, one must conclude,
still inadequately understood though they had been extensively studied.
Triggered by a switch failure at an electrical station near Niagara
Falls, within 13 minutes the power failure stretched from two Canadian
provinces through nine U.S. states as far south as N.J. and Penn.,
covering 80,000 square miles and leaving 30 million people in the dark
for over 12 hours. (New Haven cut lose from the grid in time and
maintained power--and saved my thesis apparatus at Yale from serious
damage.) Inadequate control of local electricity systems led to the
competition for the diminishing available power, causing the wave of
failures. When the Northeast utility grid of its day operated, it
operated splendidly everywhere. But when it broke down, inadequate
provisions for retaining local power autonomy made it break down
almost everywhere on the grid. (On the lighter side, many UFO
sightings near Niagara were reported and blamed, and the birth rate
spiked sharply nine months later.)

As The Economist survey makes quite clear, a highly complex new "grid"
of financial flows, manufacturing materials flows and again (vide
Enron) energy flows is growing rather arbitrarily across the US (and
beyond). Its architects are as diverse in background as the builders
of the Tower of Babel. Much public good is at stake. Has this new grid
the right balance between local autonomy and interconnectedness? Has
anyone even mentioned the relevance of a new kind of professional
engineering licensing in connection with any of it? A kind of
licensing that deals with the ethics of scales of complexity?

| Peter J. Kindlmann     |  Prof.(Adjunct)  pjk at design.eng.yale.edu   |
| Dept. of Elect. Engrg. | "I wish it would dawn upon engineers that, |
| Yale University        |in order to be an engineer, it is not enough|
| New Haven, CT 06520    | to be an engineer." Jose Ortega y Gasset   |

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