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An experienced engineer questions the idea of using technology to solve social problems.

In the Gazette's recent My View column, former Portland Commissioner Steve Novick suggests "Smart Guns" to cure gun violence (see April issue, Page 8).

As an engineer, technology as an easy solution to society's problems strikes me as a very dangerous misunderstanding of technology and its role in our society. It's what lawyers and policy consultants who won't understand technology look to when they, themselves, have no solution to offer. 

Consider the problem of children watching inappropriate television programs. Shall we ask why parents aren't supervising children's TV watching? Shall we ask why there's inappropriate content on TV at all? No. These are complicated questions about difficult sociological problems with messy legal implications. Instead, let's equip every TV set with a chip! A chip will solve the problem, right? Well … actually … no. The Unites States has required V chips in TV sets for 20 years, and children are still watching inappropriate programs.

Consider the problem of people killing each other using stolen guns. Shall we ask why people kill other people? Shall we ask why people steal guns? Shall we ask why, while this nation has been awash in privately owned guns for hundreds of years, gun violence has only recently emerged as a societal problem? No. These are complicated questions about difficult sociological problems with messy legal implications.

Instead of addressing these complicated, messy problems, lawyers and policy consultants look to technology and engineers for quick fixes. Designing the chips is easy; many cellphones have fingerprint recognition. Mandating the chips only requires passing a law, something legislators are all too good at, especially when passing that law can be portrayed as solving a problem.

"Smart guns" would be a quick and easy way for politicians to create the illusion that they solved the gun violence problem, just like they solved the television problem. 

Technology can solve technological problems. But, by its nature, technology can't actually solve societal problems. It's just not right for politicians and lawyers and policy consultants to expect engineers to solve these problems for them, especially problems that aren't in our area of expertise. 

Mr. Novick suggest politicians encourage "smart guns" by mandating them for police departments. 

Fingerprint recognition technology on cell phones works well, unless your fingers are wet, or sweaty or dirty, or you're wearing gloves or a bandage. Sometimes it just doesn't work very well, which is why phones have passwords, too. 

The other common "smart gun" technology uses "tokens," key fobs or bracelets carried by authorized users. Some departments in Europe started issuing such guns. They stopped quickly when a hacker demonstrated a pocket-sized device that disables all such guns within several dozen feet. The technique could be scaled up to disable guns within perhaps a square mile area. That same engineer demonstrated a device that unlocks "smart" guns without the token. 

Obviously, these guns aren't so smart. I suspect that most police officers won't think that requiring such guns is a very "smart" idea. 

Better "smart" guns could be designed, but that's not my point. As an engineer, I can tell you that technology is never perfect. I can also tell you that technology can't solve sociological problems. It's just the wrong tool for the job. We engineers aren't the right people for politicians and lawyers to look to for solutions to sociological problems.

Chuck Gollick is a 21-year Sherwood resident and an electrical engineer and new product developer. He has worked at Biamp Systems in Beaverton for the last 17 years.

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