Can we really manage the complexity we are creating?

Possible paths of flight MH370 based on signals relayed from Navigation Satellites. Credit: Scott Henderson

As 2014 closes down there are many events that are crowded in my mind. Of these I picked this one because, at least to me, it highlights our failure in managing the interaction between technology, humans and organisations: the lost MH370.

As you surely remember, MH370 took off from Kuala Lumpur on March 8th 2014 headed to Beijing. It never arrived. In spite of the many searches as of today we still don't know where it is. You may take a look at a series of analyses and computer modelling of the possible flight path based on the pings generated by the aircraft and captured by satellites.

MH370 had very smart navigational technology on board, in part under the control of the pilots, in part of ground controllers and in part automatically managed by the aircraft (the pings) and satellites. The aircraft was travelling under the command of two experienced pilots and was followed by ground controllers the whole regulated by strict procedures to ensure a seamless interworking of men and machines.

And yet, something went very wrong, and the feeling is that, independently of the root cause the interplay of organisation, men and machine didn't work.

We are living in a world where the number of "machines", things, interplaying directly and indirectly with us and governed by a variety of organisations (and rules) is growing beyond control. 

We don't even know how many things are now interacting with us, connected one way or another to the internet. We don't even know the meaning of "connected"!

If you search the web to find the number of "things" connected to the internet at the end of 2014 you'll get different numbers, from the 3.75 Billion of Gartner to the 16 Billion of Forbes up to 20 Billion of Cisco
How could numbers vary so greatly? As I mentioned, one of the reason is that we don't agree on what we mean by connected. 

If you take an extensive definition of connected, as any device, or part of it, that generates data that eventually can be shared on the Internet or that can receive data from the Internet than the numbers we are dealing with are already larger than the ones mentioned by Cisco. Just consider cell phones. There are now over 7 Billion cell phones (their number has exceeded the number of people in 2014) and there is no doubt that they are all connected (not all of them to the internet ...), over 300 million smartphones have been sold in the last quarter, that is over a billion in 2014. Each of this smart phone has at least four sensors (touch, mike, accelerometer, digital camera) which means that just in 2014 we have connected to the internet over 5 billion "things"....

Add on the sensors you have in a home (temperature, antitheft sensors, light sensors -like those in the television...), the ones you have in cars (at least sixty in each car manufactured today, 200 in cars manufactured by the end of this decade, 22 billion sensors are expected to be used by car manufacturers in 2020!), add the digital cameras, the security cameras,.... the list is endless.

Now, if we don't even know how many things are interacting with us how can we believe that we can manage the interactions that we might experience and those that take place below the level of our perception?

As we move into a "blended" world, as we say at the EIT ICT Labs, this is going to be a major concern. We are probably faster in deploying new technology than we are in understanding its implication. And this is something to think about...

Author - Roberto Saracco

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