Smart and dumb systems are becoming indistinguishable

In the first week of 2018, I got surprised by a smart system, that looked like a dumb system. Unfortunately, it scratched my car in the process.

One of the first things I did this year, was drive through a carwash. The wash cleaned the outside of my car, I used the available vacuum heads to clean the inside and then I was off with a shiny car. Until I got to the automatic gate. It looks like a beam that bars the way and automatically opens when a car approaches.

For the two cars in front of me, it opened. The one directly in front of me, drove through the gate while it was closing and the beam automatically opened halfway through to not hit the car. So I think it’s safe for me to do the same. Yet it didn’t, it hit the hood of my car and scratched the surface. I had to back up a bit to trigger the system to open the gate.

After I explained the situation to the staff, they fixed the scratches in their body shop and gave me a complementary wash. Very good customer service. I also learned that the beam is not just a dumb beam that detects whether there’s a car in front of it. It’s attached to a camera system that detects oncoming traffic and only opens when there are no oncoming cars that could cause a collision.

The carwash could be held accountable if an accident happens because the beam gives the all clear to the waiting car that it’s safe to enter traffic. So I thank the insurance and inattentive drivers for this system.

The thing that struck me here, is that I, a software professional and all round geek, could not distinguish a dumb system from a smart system. The gate looks like any gate I’d encounter at railroad crossings, parking lots and garages. I expect simple behaviour: car approaches, gate opens, I can pass.

But this gate is not dumb. It’s communicating with a camera and checking that it’s safe for me to pass. It also took the decision to scratch my car to prevent me from bumping into another car. It’s the equivalent of somebody stretching out his hand, stopping me from walking into busy traffic.

Except, when I see a person doing this, I assume intelligence (not always a given, but I assume anyway). I assume that that person has a good reason to stop me. I did not have this reaction with this gate. The first thing that came to mind was that there was a bug, that there was something wrong with the gate.

In the next years to even decades, I think we will need to adjust to smart systems. Systems that can check their surroundings and make decisions and take actions based on what they observe. They will make surprising actions, like a gate closing when you don’t expect it.

On the other hand, there are smart traffic lights. The visible difference between a normal traffic light and a smart one is the camera on top of the smart light. They look almost the same. The difference is that the smart light will switch every x seconds, while the smart light will use a more complex logic: are there cars in front of the light, did all cars pass so the light can switch back faster to let the other, maybe busier, street resume faster. I don’t notice the difference between these two types of traffic lights, they just switch between green, yellow and red. Yet one behaves very differently than the other.

 

Smart systems will be indistinguishable from dumb systems. They will look like doors and lights and everyday objects. Except they will have intelligence and we will be caught off guard because they will behave in a ways we do not expect.

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