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To measure the complexity in our life, a design student in England took it upon himself to design a humble electric toaster from basic raw materials. Thomas Twaite noted that a modern toaster has more than four-hundred components made up of several materials. He was soon forced to compromise. For iron, he could not use fifteenth-century smelting technology. He had to scavenge for plastic as getting it made from crude was not agreed to by British oil and gas company, BP. Nickel came from commemorative coins, melted and drawn as wires using machines. Copper came from the polluted waters of a mine. He realised that without shortcuts, one lifetime can be easily spent.

He finally made one which worked on a car battery but perished when connected to the mains.

So, a humble toaster is indeed an engineering feat, a pioneering product of accumulated and distilled knowledge of civilisations. Failure to make such an ubiquitous contraption also points to intractable interdependencies – a creeping complexity of things in our life.

We have seen this in history; how accumulation of events and memories start to influence course of events and take a life of their own. History mixed with technology laid the foundation of Cold War – the longest war of recent times, which still gets echoed from the Middle East to Crimea.

Can we then conclude that complexity is the new normal? Charles Perrow in Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies brings out how interdependency between things brings about catastrophic accidents, which should be accepted as inevitable.

To understand the Samsung Note 7 recall, the 2008 global financial crisis and the Fukushima or Bhopal gas tragedy, one needs to humbly bow to the complexity and hidden connections or coupling as many say. This underscores the hidden risks and should moderate our expectations and the price we must pay for the convenience.

The Premise

Perrow lucidly brings out that a university is a complex system, so is a chemical plant; why would you hesitate to settle next to the chemical plant and not to the university? He then grades the situation further by bringing in the concept of coupling and how tight it is. A university has systems which are loosely coupled, whereas a chemical plant has tightly coupled systems – high-pressure vessels, highly reactive chemical mixes, high temperatures, possibility of violent interaction if wrong sequence of events carried out, setting off catastrophic events like falling dominos. Therefore, physical proximity, high temperatures, high pressures, highly reactive material, dependence on tight parameters and sequences in a process underscore tightness of dependency or coupling.

Smaller volumes and smaller spaces became the key which opened the door to doom for Samsung Galaxy Note 7. A complex system just got its coupling tightened a bit more.

Samsung Galaxy Note 7

Remember the combustion triangle from the school days?

For any fire to happen, there should be fuel, which burns in presence of oxygen, and there should be sufficient temperature to cause ignition of the fuel. So what happened in the flagship, category-defining leading phablet?

Lithium ion chemistry for batteries is well-understood and deployed. This chemistry has delivered the best energy-to-weight ratio for practical applications. However, Lithium ion batteries have tended to be problematic. Recollect the famous Nokia recall of its batteries in 2005. Also, one is reminded of the grounding of the whole fleet of Boeing dreamliners (787) over their batteries catching fire.

Tesla has also faced battery-related issues, which caused serious fires. In an earlier recall of millions of Lithium ion batteries by Sony, one of the best manufacturers, the cause was 1 in 2,00,000 defect of having microscopic metal particles in the battery.

Not only batteries, but semiconductors too need extremely tight environments to be manufactured, but semiconductor devices just fail and fuse on to themselves unlike batteries which have to deal with high energy stored.

Mobile phones are not used just for telephony or texting anymore; they are also used for entertainment and social media. So, the battery now needs to be larger in capacity, whereas the phone’s portability remains at a premium.

We now have a heady cocktail: high energy in tight space, having volatile and inflammable material under pressure, manufactured in very exacting conditions with exothermic interactions which can lead to thermal runaway. Batteries need to be charged in a highly controlled manner. Make a mistake and you can burn down your house. The level of charge is estimated by mathematical models and charging controlled using advanced electronics.

In short, coupling is tight and complexity high. Samsung gave a firmware patch which capped the battery being charged up to 60 per cent of total capacity, which led to several speculations on the cause of failure in first place. Was it just a case of too tight a form factor that the battery didn’t get to expand while charging forced electrodes to come in contact? The electrodes are separated by very thin separators which can get punctured, causing a short circuit, say, a small crack in a large dam. It has been speculated that possibly phone electronics couldn’t estimate the level of charge and kept charging the battery, and hence the cap of 60 per cent.

What baffles one is that even after batteries were replaced by those from another manufacturer, the problem continued. So clearly, the linkage goes deeper.

The Lessons

  • Charge your phone by keeping it in open space. Imagine if it were to ignite. Would the fire be contained? Are there curtains or other combustible material nearby?
  • Don’t talk while the phone is on charge; use speaker instead, if you must.
  • Best guard against electrical problems is to just touch the object and sense how hot it is. Uncomfortably hot means the electronics inside is at a much higher temperature and the battery may enter in to thermal runaway.
  • Use chargers from original equipment manufacturers.
  • Charging a laptop on the bed is a very bad idea. Apple’s new range has fan-less designs; they cleverly use the metallic body of the laptop to manage the heat. It’s always a good idea to keep the laptop on a solid surface, which leaves some space under the laptop. Try not to use the laptop on tables with the top covered with a sheet of cloth or having a cushioned top.
  • If you find a battery bloated, deformed or damaged, discard it immediately, at a place where even if the battery catches fire, damage is contained. You can’t repair the battery.
  • It’s not a good idea to keep discarded phones and unused Lithium ion batteries around in the house. Dispose them.
  • Unless you have an electric vehicle with a Lithium ion battery, you can just pour water on the battery on fire, as the amount of lithium in the battery is very small. (Lithium reacts violently with water)
  • As a matter of rule, don’t do a ‘quick charge’ of your device. Several cigarette lighter socket car chargers give this option. Don’t use them.
  • Power banks are nothing but batteries of the kind we’ve been discussing and suffer from the same drawbacks. It also needs to be handled with care. Market is flooded with power banks at various price points; be careful in selecting them.
  • As a rule of thumb, slow charging is good. If you charge through the computer’s USB port, that is quite safe.

Please take a close look at the pictures of what remains of a mobile phone when its battery combusts. We press it against our head. It is not to scare you, but just be a little cautious.

The lessons: moderating the tech arrogance

The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 recall is a classic example of how the new normal is disturbing. There is a need to appreciate the hidden connectedness and dependence; in essence, this is what one calls maturity and wisdom.

The recent cyber attack on internet infrastructure in the United States on 21 October was mounted through baby monitors and other household gadgets like CCTV cameras (see this and this). So long as life or money didn’t depend on computer networks, one could have dismissed such cyber attacks as annoyance, but growing complexity sees such networks getting increasingly embedded in matters which impact our lives (think of Watson, Tesla) or money (the cyber attack on Indian banking – SBI to replace six lakh ATM cards) or livelihood. Volkswagen cheating on emission testing also plays out the complex relationship between the company discipline, statutes, understanding of tests procedures and tools available.