The Irony Of All That Tech At CES And No Power

With ~184k visitors, ~1200 speakers, ~4000 companies exhibiting, estimates suggest this will be the largest CES ever. And for good reason, there is a lot happening at a heady pace in the world of consumer electronics. There will be many companies exhibiting the latest tech from electric vehicle concept cars to accessibility focused Augmented Reality Apps to self-driving grocery stores on wheels. And don’t forget all the voice activated gizmos either. There’s a lot going on.

But the fragility of our technology and systems, and might I say the pointlessness of it all, was brought to the fore with the blackout that led to everyone being thrown out of the CES arena. All that futuristic tech and no electricity to power them up.

 

Let’s ignore the irony of Intel calling out someone else in the midst of the (probably shady) practice by their CEO and the flaws we’re all having to deal with using their chips. Instead of talking about the risks, and the vast opportunity we have, to do something about our fragile power systems, our big tech companies are looking for who can be the quickest to send out a funny tweet. I can take a good joke but methinks we need to get a bit more serious about this Grid fragility issue.

Atlanta Airport Blackout

For 11hrs on Sunday Dec 17th 2018, the world’s busiest airport, Atlanta’s Hartfield’s Jackson Airport, lost electricity supply. 30k travelers missed ~1100 flights to 100’s of locations across the world. Some friends, on their annual Asian vacation, missed their flight. Georgia Power, the local utility, in their initial statement on the outage, suggested

“a piece of Georgia Power switchgear located in an underground electrical facility could have failed and started a fire.”

If Gretchen Bakke’s ‘The Grid’ did not highlight the problem about the US electricity grid, this outage, at such a scale, from a simple switchgear failure, should tell us that we need a new electric grid system. The impact of the hurricanes that knocked out power in Houston, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands and Florida were at such a scale that we felt helpless in the face of an ‘Act of God’ (using insurance terms). But not the Atlanta airport outage. A small fire shouldn’t have knocked out power supply for that critical an airport for 11hrs. We absolutely need a new grid system.

Grid Fragility

We only pay attention to electricity when it isn’t there. That’s the real travesty I’m calling out here. And we take for granted that it will always be there. I grew up in a country where the grid and electricity was always there, we were/still are one of the largest oil producing countries in the world. And then the grid and the electricity it supplied stopped being there. 25 years later and the grid problem still hasn’t been fixed.

 

As a population, we pay more attention to the trivialities of robot dogs and pole dancing robots (yes. That gif above) at the expense of time we should spend on building an antifragile electricity grid that provides sustainable and cost effective power. We should start working collectively to building a grid that does not shut down due to one failure on the system. These events will happen even more often and at much larger scales if we continue to invest in trivia apps instead of spending money on solving wicked problems like energy.

Crazy thing is that with the advances in our technology, we can now finally replicate for our electricity grid the antifragile control systems of nature. We can now replicate a system where every single energy consuming or generating device (IoT device) on the distributed grid (network) can be considered a node and algorithmically programmed (using Machine Learning) to shut down that single device instead of compromising the whole system. The problem is not the technology. The problem is that we are too distracted by the trivialities that will dominate at CES to even care.

And that’s a shame.