Artificial intelligence
- Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - December 15, 2015 - 9:00am

The fast pace of technological change is the hallmark of the world we live in today. Cell phone models are changing faster than we can learn how to use them.

Indeed, you can ask Siri almost anything and Siri has an answer. Siri isn’t a person but a built-in “intelligent assistant” that enables users of Apple iPhones and iPads to voice commands in a normal way of speaking to get information, etc.

I have seen a feature on television about a robot designed and programmed by Japanese engineers to do housework. In some hospitals, robots are doing surgical procedures under the guidance of a human surgeon thousands of miles away.

Google’s driverless car is now roaming around Silicon Valley. An IBM computer has defeated the world’s greatest chess player. Many large manufacturing companies have factories using the latest in robotics, displacing hundreds of union card waving blue collar workers.

The most modern passenger airliner is practically flown by a computer. The pilots use a joystick, similar to what we have in our game consoles, to manage a flight on the few occasions human intervention is needed.

It is the same thing with cars. An online article noted, “more and more, cars are rolling computers.” The article explains “people understandably believe that a car’s gas pedal is mechanically connected to the car’s throttle. In modern cars, there is no such connection.

“A foot on the gas pedal is signaling a computer in the car that the driver would like to go faster; a little electric motor then opens the throttle in response to the driver’s command. This enables the car to do clever things with the throttle on your behalf to improve gas mileage, to allow for automatic adjustment to altitude, and so on.

It also means the computer runs the car’s throttle… The driver offers ‘input’ but it’s the computer that moves the physical parts.”

We have put a lot of faith in the computer and mostly, the trust is deserved. Computers have taken over many boring or repetitive tasks that are subject to human error. But is the computer infallible? Not at all. Computers fail often enough and with devastating consequences.

There have been some failures in medical equipment using radiation that have resulted in subsequent deaths. An online article reports, “a radiation technician at the East Texas Cancer Center in Tyler, Texas, set up to treat a skin cancer patient with the center’s two-year-old medical linear accelerator. The machine had been used to successfully treat more than 500 center patients over two years.

“The radiation tech turned the beam on but the machine quickly shut itself down, making a loud noise and reporting ‘Malfunction 54.’ The patient told the technician and, later, the hospital’s nuclear physicist, that it had felt like fire on the side of his face, he’d seen a flash of light, and heard a sound reminiscent of ‘frying eggs.’

“The patient died three weeks later, from a massive radiation exposure… Just three weeks earlier, a patient undergoing his ninth radiation treatment had actually jumped up from the treatment bed and pounded on the door to get out of the treatment room. He, too, had received a massive overdose. He died from it five months later.

“Two engineers from the manufacturer came out to Tyler. They found no problems, and assured the treatment center that overdoses were ‘impossible.’ The manufacturer suggested that perhaps there had been an electrical shock.

“An independent engineering firm was brought in and found no electrical problems. The machine was put back in service on April 7th, four days before the second incident… the problem was a rarely exercised bug in the software.”

The same article noted that around the time of these radiation burns, leading-edge automobile manufacturers were introducing electronic cruise control and electronic throttle control. And around that time, the world began hearing of “sudden unintended acceleration.”

SUA as we know the phenomenon, has been blamed on the car mat getting stuck with the accelerator. Drivers have also been blamed for wrong pedal application.

Apparently, SUA may also be explained by software failure. “Software is an even more difficult problem than physical technology - corporations generally keep their software secret, since it provides them with a proprietary advantage. The resulting secrecy can make it difficult to find the source of failures.”

It was generally believed that NASA vindicated Toyota in that landmark SUA case. But NASA had a caveat embedded in its report: “The NASA engineers were very clear on page 20 of their report that they were not able to vindicate the Toyota engine software; they simply said that in the limited time they were provided, they could not find a problem.”

The role of software malfunction came out in the course of a jury trial related to a SUA case involving Toyota in Oklahoma. Michael Barr, a software systems expert, had been allowed to examine the source code of Toyota’s engine-control system and found terrible problems with the system’s design.

“The problems, said Barr, made it theoretically possible that a software failure would both trap the throttle in a wide open position and disable the very systems that should notice the problem…” Barr found many other problems throughout the software. For details check this link:

Marcial Ocampo, an engineer and a former colleague of mine at Petron, wrote me to offer another possible cause of SUA – traffic draining the battery. “Based on my experience with an L-300, getting stuck in traffic with full head-lights and aircon for over 45-minutes is a sure bet to have a discharged battery…”

Mars is saying that under-capacity alternator (cheaper) and smaller battery (cheaper) with same voltage (but lower ampere-hours storage), SUA could be due to computer glitch arising from transient (un-steady and varying) voltage during starting (cranking of engine by starter motor draws a heavy ampere current).

He warns “starting would cause a weak battery to start the engine with a computer box not fully booted that may result in hay-wire computer commands to the fuel injector to increase fuel as it may be thinking an emergency exists requiring corrective action (such as control mitigation) to right-up the vehicle to the straight direction after a presumed skid.

“And with the computer box software with no ‘BRAKE OVER-RIDE’ which commands the fuel injector to stop supplying fuel when the brake is activated by the foot of the driver, then SUA becomes a run-away vehicle moving forward and backwards due to the inertia of the shift lever as the vehicle stops upon hitting a solid object in front and in the back.

“MITSUBISHI and DTI must test the MONTERO using battery under various voltage scenarios to fully understand this problem. Test them with 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, etc. volts to see vehicle response.

“Also, simulate the starting of a dumb driver - starting not in park or neutral but with an active gear (drive, reverse, sport or D2 or LOW)…”

The online article also cited another possibility. “A retired electronics engineer, Dr. Ron Belt, thinks it is possible that some incidents of sudden acceleration are due to negative voltage spikes on battery supply lines. Belt theorizes that if a spike occurs at the moment the voltage is being sampled in order to correct the voltage applied to the throttle motor, this could lead to an increase in the input to the throttle motor, which could result in sudden acceleration.”

It is clear SUA is a more complex technical problem than a floor mat getting stuck with the accelerator pedal. We should hear from more independent experts because the problem has been observed across many brands of motor vehicles.

My friend, Engineer Mars advises ordinary motorists the following: 1) Start in the morning always in park or neutral, never in gear, as additional load will drain battery and prevent proper boot-up of the computer box.

2) Avoid revving up engine before turning off – it might leave the accelerator stuck in open wide position, and the computer in a state not properly shut-down, so when booted up, it still thinks it is running at high speed.

3) When you encounter sudden acceleration, shift immediately to neutral so that engine is disconnected from the drive train. Slow down, brake and turn-off engine at the roadside for safety.

4) Avoid idling too long with headlights and aircon on – you will drain battery and might affect computer box.

5) Have your computer box re-programmed to ensure it has “BRAKE OVER-RIDE” feature so that when you brake, the brake will over-ride the computer commands and you can stop the car from injecting more fuel.

Computers have made our lives easier, but also more dangerous. Artificial Intelligence is great, but it doesn’t mean a functioning intelligent human brain has become redundant.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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