A few weeks ago I was trying to justify why software architects and developers, instead of politicians, should govern the world. Coincidently, I watched one of those programs about huge construction projects on TV this week, and it brought home even more the astonishing way that everything these days depends on computers and software. Even huge mechanical machines that seem to defy the realms of possibility.
In the program, P&H Mining Equipment was building a gigantic mechanical excavator. Much of the program focused on the huge tracks, the 100 ton main chassis, machining the massive gears for the transmission system, and erecting the jib that was as tall as a 20-storey building. Every component was incredibly solid and heavy, and it took almost superhuman effort to assemble (though you can’t help wondering how much of the drama was down to judicious editing of the video).
However, according to the program the new excavator contains brand new computing technology that allows it to dig faster, avoid stalling in heavy conditions, and frees the operator from a raft of tasks and responsibilities (though they did manage to avoid using the phrase “as easy to drive as a family car”). Every part of the process of driving and digging is controlled by computers through miles of cable and hundreds of junction boxes and power distribution systems. It even automatically finds the truck it’s supposed to be tipping into. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to be sitting in the truck when it automatically detects where I am and tips several hundred tons of rock. You never know if the operator has chosen that moment to switch it auto-pilot (or auto-dig) and wandered off for lunch.
And then later on, when it came time to test it and nothing seemed to work, there was no sign of a gang of oil-spattered brute force workmen – just a guy in shirt sleeves with laptop computer, and a couple of electricians. Getting it to finally work just required a geek to edit a single line of code in the central operating system. I guess it’s a lot more satisfying when a successful debugging session results in some mammoth lump of machinery suddenly rumbling into action, compared to just getting a “Pass” message in your test runner.
Yet Ransomes & Rapier here in England built an equally huge excavator named Sundew way back in 1957, which you have to assume contained nothing even remotely resembling a computer. And it worked until 1984, including walking across country from one open cast mine to another 18 miles away (a journey that took nearly three months). I wonder if, in 40 years time, there will still be somebody around who knows how to debug programs in whatever language they used for the new excavator operating system. Or if, in the meantime, someone will figure a way to hack into it through Wi-Fi and make it run amok digging huge holes all over the place.
And do they have to connect it to the ‘Net once a month to download the latest patches…?