Fridays with Fuhrmann: The Michigan Model

made-in-michgreenI can’t resist starting out this week’s column with a tip of the cap to the Chicago Cubs, baseball’s perennial losers who finally won the World Series. I think it is really a wonderful story. You have to realize, this comes from someone who lived in St. Louis for 24 years before coming to Michigan Tech, and is still a diehard St. Louis Cardinals fan. The Cards and the Cubs are division rivals, big-time, and I’m sure there are plenty of old friends in St. Louis who would have been much happier to see the Cleveland Indians take it all. I can’t go that far. My loyalties remain with the National League, where they play baseball the way God intended, and you just have to be a little bit happy for a team that breaks a 108-year-old championship drought. I even tried to use the story this week as inspiration for a struggling student, citing the triumph of hope and optimism (I’m not sure it worked). Anyway, congratulations Cubbies and Cubs fans, we’ll see you next year.

The main thing on my mind this week is the question, as I mentioned last Friday, of whether or not the entrepreneurial success story of Silicon Valley can be recreated in other parts of the country, particularly Michigan and the larger Great Lakes region. This was the subject of a panel discussion led by our visitors in the 14 Floors program that I described last week. There was a lot of back and forth on the question, and I think the consensus at the end was that the whole Silicon Valley phenomenon is the result of a unique set of circumstances that are not being duplicated elsewhere. This is not to say, however, that other areas cannot learn from what has happened in California, and adapt the entrepreneurial spirit in ways that might be appropriate for them. I was very interested to be reminded that Michigan was very entrepreneurial in its own right, back in the early days of the automotive industry when there were a lot of small automobile manufacturers before the ascendancy of the Big 3. There is an awful lot of highly skilled engineering talent in the area – schools like Michigan Tech continue to add to that talent base – and thus there is every reason to believe that good things can happen here.

In discussions comparing California and Michigan technology and economics, one dominant theme always comes up: autonomous vehicles. Michigan is of course home to the U.S. auto industry, but the key role of computer science, software engineering, machine vision, robotics etc. in autonomous vehicles has led to a lot of development work in Silicon Valley. Google and Uber want to be in the self-driving car business, as is well-known. The Big 3 automakers also have technology developments efforts in California now; I am familiar with one such facility by Ford in Palo Alto, which is very impressive and is growing quickly in support of their “moon shot” to put a fully autonomous vehicle on the road by 2021. I think this is a very smart move, combining the best of both worlds.

That being said, I do believe there is aspect to automotive design where the century-old Michigan model is still going to be very important: functional safety and reliability. It may sound a bit stodgy and conservative, but the slow, careful approach to getting it right the first time is going to be absolutely critical to the successful deployment of autonomous vehicles. I realize that Detroit has had its issues over the years, but in my experience the reliability of U.S. automobiles, especially in the last couple of decades, is nothing short of remarkable. With the exception of flat tires and dead batteries (seemingly insurmountable problems) one can count on properly maintained cars today to run the way they are supposed to. It’s probably been 30 years since I had an issue where an engine freaked out and left me stranded on the side of the road. I find this approach to reliability in stark contrast to the Silicon Valley model in which failure is not only an option, but a badge of honor on the path to entrepreneurial success.

The acceptance of flawed technology in our computer-dependent society is nowhere more evident than in the area of cybersecurity. Clearly, the original designers and visionaries in computer technology did not fully realize how easy it would be for bad actors to infiltrate the system and make computers do things that their legitimate owners and operators did not intend for them to do. We now are pushing toward the Internet of Things, or the Internet of Everything if you will. This is, or will be, a gigantic universal system of information and control that holds a lot of promise but at the same time is so riddled with security flaws that every thinking citizen should lie awake at night worrying about their family privacy, their financial integrity, and yes, the safety of their future autonomous vehicles. Consider how accepting we are today of a situation in which international hackers can steal e-mail from a major political organization, give or sell it to a third party, and exert a significant influence on a major U.S. election. This is normal? I am not suggesting that modern software designers are thoughtless or lazy, but I do think the modern push to “move fast and break things” has done exactly that, and now we have the system we have.

We have a chance to change the paradigm in the modern technology development in robotics, control, automation, cyber-physical systems, all those technologies that point toward the autonomous systems which are inevitably in our future. The new paradigm could borrow from the old paradigm of thoughtful, careful craftsmanship, one that asks the old question “if you don’t have time to do it right the first time, how are you going to find the time to fix it later?” The engineering design and manufacturing experience of Michigan and other supposedly “Rust Belt” areas might be the saving grace for autonomous systems that people will actually trust. Dare I say it? Others might do it fast, but Michigan can do it right.

[Credit where it is due: I have been influenced in my thinking on this topic by ECE Assistant Professor Jeremy Bos, who incidentally just received an Air Force Young Investigator Program (YIP) award. Congratulations and thank you Jeremy!]

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann, Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University