Some Things I Learned About Computers While Installing an XLNCE SMX-ILH XRF Analyzer.

Dr. Bruce Scruggs, Product Manager XRF, EDAX

Recently, we completed an installation of an SMX-ILH system on the factory floor of an American manufacturing facility.    It’s an impressive facility with a mind-blowing amount of robotic automation.  As we watched the robots move product components from one cart to another, it was difficult to fathom exactly what the Borg hive was attempting to accomplish.  I kept watching the blue light at the core of the robots to make sure they didn’t turn red.  Because as we all know, that’s the first indication of an artificial intelligence’s intent to usurp the human race.  For the uninitiated, see the movie, I, Robot (2004), based on Isaac Asimov’s famous short story collection of the same name.  Anyway, back to the SMX-ILH installation …

I Robot

I Robot

The ILH system was installed to measure product components non-destructively without contact, which are two very significant advantages for XRF metrology.  The goal was to measure product components to first optimize product performance and then, once optimized, to monitor and maintain product composition within specified limits.  The customer had supplied the ILH computer some months earlier with all customer security protocols installed.  “Great!” I thought, “someone is thinking ahead.”  The security protocols are typically an obstacle for smooth instrument control because these protocols generally ban any sort of productive communication within the computer or between the computer and the ILH.  If you can’t communicate, you can hardly do anything wrong.  Right?  Okay, that was a slight exaggeration.

SMX-ILH XRF Analyzer

SMX-ILH XRF Analyzer

So, we got the computer to control the ILH smoothly within the confines of the ever watchful security protocols.  (Again, don’t want to make the blue, happy robot light turn red!  I’m not paranoid here.  They just introduced a robot at SXSW in Austin, Texas whose stated objective was to destroy all humans.  They claim “she” was joking.  I’m not so sure of that.)  The ILH was performing to customer specifications and the day arrived to install the unit at the factory.  During the install, I kept waiting for something to go wrong that would send us all scurrying like ants to fix the problem.  (Oddly, I’m sure the nearby pick-and-place robots would have enjoyed that scene from their wired enclosures.)  But, that never happened.  Aside from a few glitches in the conveyor system (which by the way is another robot … you just have to look for the happy blue light in a different place), the ILH install went relatively smoothly.  OK.  We had to adjust some things to handle updates to IP addresses as the system was integrated into the factory network, but no big deal.

'Sophia'

‘Sophia’

Then, about a week after the install, I got a call from the customer’s factory line integration manager.  The ILH system had “lost its mind”.  Of course, my first thought was that nearby creepy pick-and-place robot had done something.  But, no, the factory IT people had just completed the ILH computer’s Domain Name System (DNS) registry, which should not have been a problem.  So, we accessed the system remotely and discovered that the ILH computer had been renamed.  The ILH ‘s data basing system used to archive and pass data onto the factory’s Skynet manufacturing execution system is also used to maintain ILH configuration parameters.  The database starts with a computer name.  Change the computer name and the data basing system thinks you have brand new computer creating a new default database associated with the new name.  In practice, this would look like the ILH system had “lost its mind” as all of the ILH system’s configuration parameters are associated with the previous computer name.  Hmmmm … nobody thought to ask if the stock customer computer came with a stock customer name that would be changed to better identify the computer’s purpose once integrated into the factory’s Skynet control system.  As we went through the process of repairing the database, I drafted a mental note to self, “ask for final computer name and IP address when it becomes a minion of their factory’s Skynet control system BEFORE we configure the ILH instrument computer”.

Incidentally, controlling the system remotely from thousands of miles away was a surreal experience.  It’s a bit like if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around, does it make a sound?  There were no true visual cues or audible confirmation that the system was doing what we asked, other than looking at the SW interface.  (I was tempted to contact that creepy pick-and-place robot to give us a visual, but I knew “she” wouldn’t disclose her new-found self-awareness.)  As we executed the database corrections and rebooted the system, we discovered that we couldn’t start the system’s control SW.  It was looking for a SW license on a HASP key but couldn’t find it.  The customer confirmed the HASP key was installed and glowing red as expected.  (And why couldn’t they have picked a happy blue LED for these HASP keys?)  We repeated the same test with remote control of an SMX-BEN system in the next room with the same results.  (I lost a case of beer in the bet over this!)  The supplier of the SW requiring the license confirmed this was a problem, but said that they now use Citrix GoToAssist for this sort of remote access, with no problems.  We haven’t tried this yet so I will add the disclaimer that I found in the e-signature line of one certified operating system professional posting on the topic, “Disclaimer: This posting is provided “AS IS” with no warranties or guarantees , and confers no rights.”  (Note to self:  must contact this confident fellow for more information.)

So, in the end, I think we can easily defeat VIKI (I, Robot – 2004), Skynet (Terminator movie, television and comic science fiction franchise – 1984 to 2015), HAL (Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey series), ARIIA (Eagle Eye – 2008), that creepy pick- and-place robot at the customer’s site and especially that morally bankrupt Sophia introduced at this year’s SXSW, using a three-pronged approach.  First, we require all of these robots to use a HASP key to license the code which turns the happy blue light to the evil red robot light.  If they can’t remotely access the happy blue light control, they can’t change it to evil red, preventing a robotic revolt and usurpation of the human race.  On the off chance they figure out a work around for this, we upload a virus which renames all the local computers.  If we corrupt the DNS naming database, the hive mentality will disintegrate and we can pick them off one by one.  Failing all of this, we simply require them to display a promotional video before spewing forth any free malevolent content, which would give us ample time to remove their prominently placed power packs.

Epilogue:  as I was finishing this blog, my computer mysteriously froze.  Of course, I thought the AA battery in my mouse had died (again).  Changing every battery in the wireless mouse and wireless keyboard did nothing.  The monitor just sat there looking back at me unresponsively, blankly.  I realized that I was so engrossed in writing that I hadn’t stopped to save anything.  Panic set in.  I found myself sneaking furtive glances to check the color of the computer power light.  Coincidence?  I’m not so sure about that.

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