Everyday superheroes

Everyday superheroes John Dovey President UK corporates BT Global Services Among all the items about the sub-prime crisis and the credit crunch, one news story really caught my attention.

Everyday superheroes

John Dovey

President UK corporates

BT Global Services

Among all the items about the sub-prime crisis and the credit crunch, one news story really caught my attention. It was about a robotic suit being developed for the US Army.

The suit is full of computer-controlled hydraulic devices, with a light-weight exoskeleton that gives those who wear it superhuman powers. Demonstrating its uses in a gym, one of the software engineers working on the project pulled down twice his own weight, repeating the task time after time without breaking a sweat. In the future, it seems, even physically-demanding tasks will be a breeze.

Given the complexities of the technology involved, getting the suit to work was a real achievement. However, it was something else that piqued my interest: it is not often you see such a vivid demonstration of how technology is changing our lives and the challenges technologists have to overcome.

On reflection, the networked IT systems our industry supplies are invisible analogues of the suit - exoskeletons that surround people, extending their natural abilities. Equipped with these suits, average office "superheroes" routinely complete tasks once well beyond a single person's reach - even the reach of whole teams. Complex calculations and processes are completed in minutes or hours instead of days or weeks.

Business has benefited, as have individuals and society.

With PCs and broadband connections, we are no longer limited by what our home town or, even, our home continent has to offer. Whenever we want to buy, sell, study or be entertained, we can do so wherever in the world is best - and all without leaving our homes.

Elsewhere, IT is transforming public services, improving standards of healthcare, helping us to reduce our impact on the environment, and more. The list of benefits gets longer every day.

But, before you get too excited about all the good our industry has done, take another look at that robotic suit. Two things about it should make you stop and think.

First, new users will be clumsy - a bit like babies doing things for the first time. They will need to adjust to the strength afforded them by the suit. In the meantime, they are likely to make mistakes.

It is not always as obvious as it was at Terminal 5 recently, but much the same is true when people are given IT systems and other new technologies. Traders thought they understood how to use the complex financial products IT made possible, for example, but the current crisis may yet prove them wrong.

The final thing the suit highlights is that new technologies can be used for both good and evil. Imagine trying to secure premises against super villains in robotic suits. It is not going to be easy, but neither is defending IT systems against bot attacks. What is certain, though, is that just looking at the benefits is a mistake. The risks are every bit as important, and require just as much attention.

Most of us appreciate such things, of course - it is why so many of our projects work out right. But high profile failures continue to plague our industry, tarnishing our reputation. It is the failures we need to do something about.

This was last published in June 2008

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