1 Cautious Cars and Cantankerous Kitchens: How Machines Take Control

Where Are We Going? Who Is to Be in Charge?

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Where Are We Going? Who Is to Be in Charge?

“My car almost got me into an accident,” Jim told me.

“Your car? How could that be?” I asked.

“I was driving down the highway using the adaptive cruise control. You know, the control that keeps my car at a constant speed unless there is a car in front, and then it slows up to keep a safe distance. Well, after awhile, the road got crowded, so my car slowed. Eventually I came to my exit, so I maneuvered into the right lane and then turned off the highway. By then, I had been using the cruise control for so long, but going so slowly, that I had forgotten about it. But not the car, ‘hurrah!’ I guess it said to itself, ‘hey, finally, there’s no one in front of me,’ and it started to accelerate to full highway speed, even though this was the off-ramp that requires a slow speed. Good thing I was alert and stepped on the brakes in time. Who knows what might have happened.”

We are at the start of a major change in how people relate to technology. Up to recently, people have been in control. We turned the technology on and off, told it which operation to perform, and guided it through its operations. As technology has become more powerful and complex, we became less able to understand how it worked, less able to predict its actions. Once computers and microprocessors entered the scene, we often found ourselves lost and confused, annoyed and angered. But still, we considered ourselves to be in control. No longer. Now, our machines are taking over. They have intelligence and volition. They are able to make decisions for themselves. Moreover, they monitor us, correcting our behavior, forbidding this, requiring that, even taking over when we do not do their bidding. This is a major change.
Machines that monitor us, even as we monitor them. They monitor us with the best of intentions, of course, in the interest of safety, convenience, or accuracy. When everything works, these smart machines can indeed be helpful: increasing safety, reducing the boredom of tedious tasks, making our lives more convenient, and doing the tasks more accurately than we could. But what about when the technology fails? What about when it does the wrong thing, or fights with us for control, or what if it simply fails? The result can decrease safety, decrease comfort, decrease accuracy. For us, the people involved, it leads to danger and discomfort, frustration and anger.
In actuality, the real intelligence does not lie in the machine: it lies in the head of the design team, sitting comfortably at their workplace trying to imagine the situations that will occur and designing the machine to respond in ways they believe to be appropriate. Even though they do not know – and cannot know – the actual circumstances in which these conditions will occur, the context, the motives, the special conditions. The designers and engineers have let loose demons, unbeknownst to them. Technology can be beneficial, but only if built and used properly.
Consider the story that opened this section: Jim and his enthusiastic car. I have told this story to engineers from several different automobile companies. Their responses have all been similar, always having two components. The first component is to blame the driver. Why didn’t he turn off the cruise control before exiting? I explain that he had forgotten about it. Then he was a poor driver, comes back the response. This is what I call the “blame and train” philosophy. Blame someone for the problem, punish them appropriately, and insist they get more training. Blame and train always makes the blamer, or the insurance company, the legislative body, or society feel good: if people make errors, punish them. But it doesn’t solve the underlying problem. Poor design, and often poor procedures, poor infrastructure, and poor operating practices are the true culprits: people are simply the last step in this complex process. To eliminate problems we need to correct all of the steps, but most importantly of all, the first one, what safety engineers call the “root cause.”

Although the car company is technically correct that the driver is supposed to remember the mode of the car’s automation, that is no excuse. We must design our technologies for the way people actually behave, not the way we would like them to behave. Indeed, all the people I discussed this incident with admitted this was not the only time they had heard the story. It is a common problem. Moreover, the automobile does not help the driver remember. In fact, it is designed as if to help the driver forget! There is hardly any clue at all as to the state of the cruise control system. I’ll come back to this point in a later chapter: the car could do a far better job of reminding the driver how it is operating.

When I say all this to the engineers of the automobile companies, they then introduce the second component of their response: Yes, this is a problem, but don’t worry, we will fix it. After all, they say, the car’s navigation system should realize that the car is now on the exit road, so it should automatically either disconnect the cruise control or, at least, change its setting to a safe speed.
Yes, consulting the navigation system will help, but what we have here illustrates the fundamental problem. The machine is not intelligent: the intelligence is in the mind of the designer. Designers sit in their offices, attempting to imagine all that might happen to the car and driver, and then devise some solution. But one thing we know about unexpected events: they are unexpected. They are precisely the ones the designers never thought about, or thought about in a way different from the way it actually took place. How do we handle those unexpected events when the intelligence is not in the device, It is in the head of the designers?
I once got a third response from an engineer who works for an automobile manufacturer. This time, the engineer sheepishly admitted that the exit lane problem had happened to him, but that there was yet another problem: lane changing. On a busy highway, if the driver decides to change lanes, the driver waits until there is a sufficiently large gap in the traffic in the new lane and then quickly darts over there. Fine, except that usually means that the car is close to the ones in front and behind. The adaptive cruise control is likely to decide it is too close to the car in front and therefore brake.
“What’s the problem with that?” I asked, “yes, it’s annoying, but it sounds safe to me.”
“No,” said the engineer. “It’s dangerous because the car in back of you didn’t expect you to dart in front of it and then suddenly put on the brakes. If they aren’t paying close attention, they could run into you from behind. But even if they don’t hit you, the driver behind is rather annoyed with your driving behavior.”
This then led to a discussion within the about whether the car might have a special brake light that would come on when the brakes were applied by the automobile itself rather than by the driver, basically telling the car behind “hey, don’t blame me, the car did it.”
“Don’t blame me, the car did it”? That is an excuse? Something is wrong, badly wrong here.
As the role of automation increases in our lives – in the automobile, in our homes – where do we draw the limit? Where does automation stop? Who is to be in charge? In the automobile, cars increasingly drive themselves maintaining the proper speed and distance from the car ahead, warning when we stray into the adjacent lane, or when we are driving too fast for safety. Moreover, they don’t stop with warnings. When necessary, they take over, braking, accelerating, and steering in order to maintain stability if they suspect we are skidding or tipping. They brake automatically when they predict an accident. Car navigation systems already tell us what route to follow: some day they may not allow us to deviate, or perhaps they will take over the steering themselves.
So too in the home. Our kitchen and laundry appliances are already quite intelligent, with multiple sensors, computer chips, displays, and control of motors, temperatures, and filters. Robot cleaners leave their charging stations at night and vacuum and mop the floors. Soon they will learn to avoid people, perhaps delaying their cleaning when people are around or, more likely, getting the people to leave so they can clean. In offices, the automatic systems decide when to raise and lower the shades, when to turn the lights and ventilation systems on and off. Smart homes adjust the temperature, lighting, music. They decide what television shows should be recorded. More and more, these systems attempt to read the minds, desires, and wishes of their inhabitants, pleasantly surprising when they get it right, but horribly irritating when they are wrong.
Smart appliances already populate the kitchen and laundry room. The microwave oven knows just how much power to apply and how long to cook. When it works, it is very nice: Put in fresh Salmon, tell it you have fish, and that is all you need to do. Out comes the fish, cooked to perfection, somewhere in-between a poached fish and a steamed one, but perfect in its own way. “The Sensor features detect the increasing humidity released during cooking2,” says the manual for the microwave oven. “The oven automatically adjusts the cooking time to various types and amounts of food.” That is, when it works. But notice that it really doesn’t determine how well the food is cooked: it measures the humidity, which it uses to infer the cooking level. For fish and vegetables this seems to work fine, but not for everything. Moreover, the sensing technology is not perfect. If the food comes out undercooked, the manual warns against using it a second time: “Do not use the Sensor features twice in succession on the same food portion – it may result in severely overcooked or burnt food.”
Not to be outdone by the microwave oven, the clothes drier does the same thing: “The COTTONS, EASY CARE and DELICATES cycles automatically sense fabric dryness.3” Except that you also have to tell it that you want MORE DRY for heavier fabrics and LESS DRY for lighter ones. The dishwasher has a special sensing cycle at the start of the wash where “the ExtraClean™ Sensor is measuring the amount of soil and temperature of water.4” Once it figures those out, “The dishwasher will adjust the selected cycle to achieve optimal performance.”
Do these aid the home dweller? Yes and no. They take a very condescending tome of voice toward the mere human working the machine. (The origin of this condescension is discovered in Chapter 9, during a conversation with some of the more intelligent machines.) As a result, the person is offered a magical, mysterious device that offers to do things automatically, but gives no hint as to how or why, no hint as to what stage in the operation the machine is now functioning, no hint as to the amount of doneness, cleanliness, or drying the machine is inferring from its sensing, and no idea of what to do when things don’t work properly. The quotations in the previous paragraph constitute the entire explanation of these automatic devices in the several manuals in front of me. As a result, many people, quite properly in my opinion, shun them. “Why is it doing this?” interested parties want to know. No word from the machines, hardly a word from the manuals.
In research laboratories across the world, scientists are working on even more ways of introducing machine intelligence into our lives. Smart homes and more smart appliances. There are experimental homes that sense all the actions of their inhabitants, turning the lights on and off, adjusting the room temperature, even selecting the music. The list of projects is quite impressive: refrigerators that refuse to let you eat inappropriate foods, tattletale toilets that secretly tell your physician about the state of your body fluids. Refrigerators and toilets may seem to be a rather unlikely pairing, but they team up to watch over eating behavior, the one attempting to control what goes into the body, the other measuring and assessing what comes out. We have scolding scales, watching over weight. Exercise machines demanding to be used. Even teapots shrilly whistling at us, demanding immediate attention.
These machines may think they are smart, but they are easily disturbed. They get into trouble, requiring human intervention. They need repairs, and upgrading – again, requiring human intervention. They fail, often when they are most needed, not only requiring help, but requiring it quickly, often when people are least prepared to give it. The machines are antisocial, incapable of normal social behavior, speaking, but not listening, instructing but not explaining. Moreover, their intelligence is illusionary, for the real intelligence in these devices lies in the heads of their designers, people who try to imagine every major contingency and design an appropriate machine behavior. Alas, this approach is fundamentally flawed.
As we add more and more smart devices to our lives, our lives are transformed both for good and for bad. Good, when the devices work as promised. Bad, when they fail, or when they transform our productive, creative lives into that of servant, continually looking after our machines, getting them out of trouble, repairing them, maintaining them.
Think about that nagging kitchen, or the pushy advertising signs depicted in the film Minority Report or all those so-called intelligent devices, rushing to assist you, to tell others about your needs. The biggest problem isn't that that these devices nag us (for our own good, of course). No, the biggest problems are that information about us gets spread far and wide, to those who need to know, to those who have no business knowing, and to those who like to pry, steal, or deceive. Or maybe, simply embarrass. Worse, the information being spread so widely will often be wrong. How does the kitchen know that the butter, eggs, and cream that were taken out of the refrigerator were for you? Perhaps they were for some other member of the house, or for a visitor, or maybe even for a school project.
"Not me," says the recipient of the scolding, and the disclaimer will often be correct. Hah. Just try convincing your house. Your car. Or even your spouse.
This is not the way it was supposed to be, but it certainly is the way it is. Is it too late? Can we do something about it?

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