Inventor Tim Gow recently found himself in the middle of a controversy that had many people seeing red. At issue: A low-cost mobile infrared transmitter (called MIRT) that he has developed for emergency vehicle drivers that enables them to literally turn a red traffic light to green (go to www.themirt.com for info on its general operating characteristics). But some recent news stories about the technology suggest that it is easily made available to the general public, including on some websites.
Understandably, the potential for just about anybody to wreak havoc on the traffic system caught the interest of many people.
The Detroit News first covered the story, which triggered a slew of radio reports (Gow says over 50 radio stations interviewed him live during the week after the story came out) and an indepth follow-up article in the Washington Post (Traffic Light Switcher Makes Critics See Red 11.04.03, www.washingtonpost.com). Techies had a heyday of their own talking about the technology at www.slashdot.com. Check this discussion out—there are some really clever and imaginative observations posted here.
Gow claims that he has been unfairly portrayed in the popular press, and that he simply developed his technology as an economical alternative to a system already on the market. (He says that his device costs under $500, while competitors sell their devices for $1,000 or more.) And although he insists that he only sells the device to authorized buyers, that claim is apparently ringing hollow among some people.
In the Washington Post article, for example, Michigan State Senator Tony Stamas says that he wants to make it against the law to own this type of equipment.
The fundamental problem with this type of knee-jerk legislation is that rather than penalizing a poor design, it makes the presumption that all potential buyers of this technology are criminals when in fact they may have very good uses for it. What we ought to be doing instead is monitoring the use of the technology, and possibly requiring that people have a license to operate it.
In this country, we rely on innovation happening through an open sharing of information. Attempting to lock something away only takes away that incentive for engineers and inventors to come up with better ideas.