surprisePrepare to be surprised!  Systems engineers say it rather pompously; “Complex systems exhibit unforeseen behaviour”.  Same thing.  Prepare to be surprised.

Surprises follow hot on the heels of ill-thought-through bright ideas.  There is the (possibly apocryphal) story of a Frenchman who patented a bicycle anti-theft device: a six-inch spike coming up through the saddle to catch any unsuspecting thief right in the place where the sun never shines.  Bad news for the legitimate owner who is late for work one morning and forgets to disable the mechanism (and who is no doubt left feeling a bit like the UK Government on learning that final appeal regarding triggering Brexit article 50 rests with the European Central Court of Justice).

Cockpit doors designed to keep out terrorists are just as effective against pilots who have popped out to the Khasi.  Complex passwords are difficult to hack but are also impossible to remember.

It was encouraging to witness a very grown-up debate at the Royal Institute of Navigation’s international conference in Glasgow (INC16) about the challenge of making complex systems (and self-navigating autonomous systems are complex) behave the way we want them to.  The talk was very positive but the message was clear:  be prepared to be surprised.  No one has managed to pull off such feats without at least one surprise.  And surprises – not surprisingly – might set back our ambitions by a few years.  It was a good pragmatic view.  The art is knowing when a surprise is coming.

So next time you see someone with a fragile gait and watering eyes take pity.  They might well have been stealing bicycles but are much more likely to be involved in developing autonomous vehicles.  Or maybe it’s one of the Brexit negotiating team.