Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Buick’s “Smart” Car

Apparently, no idea is too stupid to put in front of the public when you’re in advertising. Not if you’re writing ad copy for Buick. When I first saw one of their newest ads, I didn’t believe what they were saying. If you haven’t seen it on TV, it says, “Humans have 3,000 thoughts a day. The engine of the Regal Turbo has 125 million thoughts a second.” They use slightly different words, but there’s no doubt they’re saying their car’s engine is oh so much smarter than we puny humans.

If you find that hard to believe, you can watch it at YouTube. After this idiotic ad, I won’t be amazed at anything Buick does, e.g., make more stupid commercials, rehire Tiger Woods, survive to the end of the year, etc. One thing they didn’t say in any of their ads is this car is actually a rebadged German Opel (also owned by GM.)

Okay, let’s review: “Humans have 3,000 thoughts a day. The engine of the Regal Turbo has 125 million thoughts a second.” Two assertions, both unsupported, and each unrelated to the other. Which makes them what, class? Outright falsifications; untrue in the extreme. Allow me to demonstrate.

Let’s start with that first number. If you find any real research behind how many thoughts we’re supposed to have per day (or per whatever), please let me know. I can’t. What I find are quotes, but nothing that looks remotely like science. For example, here is the quote from performance coach, Jim Fannin:

“The average person has 2,000 to 3,000 thoughts a day, and 60 percent of the average person’s thoughts are in chaos.”

Almost any other quote comes from similar sources that, like Jim Fannin, have something to sell. Me, I got nothing to sell—except the idea that the truth (supported by good science) is more valuable than lies. And am I accusing the Buick ad people of lying? You bet. And worse: bad science. But first, more thought on that first number.

Let’s start by putting on our thinking caps and trying to answer these questions: What is a thought? How can anyone count thoughts? Are these only conscious thoughts? Are sleeping or non-conscious thoughts included? Or are they second-class thoughts? Aren’t some thoughts more important (light-bulb over-the-head) than others? Do important thoughts only count as one? What about incomplete thoughts? Should we throw them out, even if they lead us to better thoughts?

If these sound like stupid questions, they are. We barely have a grasp on what thinking is, let alone how to count individual thoughts. If you look up “What is a thought?” all you find are sites about what is thought, i.e., thought in general, nothing about what is a specific thought. You won’t find any answers in agreement, beyond circular definitions from dictionaries.

Which leaves us where? Well, at least we know enough not to make statements about how many thoughts humans have per day. If all this talk about thought seems a little confusing, it is but it could be an honest error. The really stupid thing about this commercial is the second misstatement. Saying, “The engine of the Regal Turbo has 125 million thoughts a second,” is not only factually wrong—unequivocally—it is intentionally misleading. Unlike the first statement, this one is a deliberate distortion of the facts in order to deceive the public.

The engine of this car does not have 125 million thoughts per second. It doesn’t have anything like a thought; what is has are computer instructions per second. For all you non-computer folk out there, a computer instruction is not a thought. Never has been. Never will be. If computers are ever capable of human-like thought, they will be doing far more complicated things than these simplistic instructions.

Having said that, the number of 125 million thoughts per second from Buick is still meaningless. Once upon a time, we used to talk about comparative speed of different computers in terms of FLOPS (FLoating point OPerations per Second). Did. Don’t any more, because computers are way, way more sophisticated and any attempt to benchmark their speed is so complicated it hurts my head. Why does this Buick ad talk as though FLOPS (no longer relevant) are like thoughts (which they are not)? For comparison, the simplest calculator runs about 10 FLOPS and the original IBM PC (1981!) ran at 200,000 FLOPS. To compare to a human, that works out to 86,400 and 1.7 billion FLOPS per day, respectively. Do you really feel 28.8 times dumber than a simple calculator? As I said, these numbers are meaningless.

Obviously, they want you to think their car is much smarter than you are. Your 3,000 thoughts per day are infinitesimal next to the Buick’s 10,800,000,000,000 (10.8 trillion) “thoughts” per day. (Do the math; of course, that’s only 450 billion per hour.) However, since they want to compare numbers, the appropriate comparison is their car has 3.6 billion times as many “thoughts” as we have. But it doesn’t. I’ll say it again: those aren’t thoughts!

Of course, their goal is not exactly to make you feel stupid, but rather to feel smart (smarter than you actually are) by buying their lies. (Remember: from Germany.) They want you to think this Buick is smarter than you, so you should buy one to prove you’re smart, i.e., smarter than your neighbors.

Is this just advertising hyperbole? Maybe, but I think there’s something more sinister to it. I claim not just auto-manufacturers but all makers of computers want you, the consumer, to feel inferior to their products. They want to make you anxious. They want to create a continuous, increasing anxiety if you don’t buy the latest (i.e., the smartest) computer-driven gadget they’re selling.

What’s really alarming is they’re not alone. This same strategy is employed by every manufacturer of every computer-based device. Why are they using this approach? Since people are buying, how can we say they’re wrong? Maybe the Machine is smarter. Hey, it doesn’t even need actual thoughts for the public to think it’s intelligent.


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4 thoughts on “Buick’s “Smart” Car

  1. I just saw this commercial on TV and was hoping someone would have written a rebuttal against Buick’s ridiculous claim. Great work! 🙂

  2. David on said:

    I’m a GM guy and was so disappointed when I saw this commercial. You are correct about thoughts, what they are and what they aren’t and of course computers don’t think. To compare more “apple to apple” we would compare reactions to or readings of data. The computers in modern day cars monitor everything that happens in that car. Every time a cylinder fires it’s counted. If you have the right computer to plug into the cars computer it’ll tell you have fast the car have been driven, what the RPM’s were, when the brakes were applied and how hard, engine temp, oil life, tire pressures, and the list goes on and on.

    Now let’s compare it to us humans. Remember, we’re comparing apples to apples as much as possible, so we’re comparing reactions to and readings of data…our brain makes us breath, blink, digest, heal, eliminate, hear, touch, taste, and react all without conscious thought. How many times a second? When I look out my window and see horses, cows, trucks, cars, birds, ducks, grass, water, mountains, trees, dogs, cats, not to mention all the colors…how many thoghts is that is a split second?

    Thanks for taking the time to comment on this, not all of us are brain dead yet.


  3. thechips on said:

    I googled Buick 125 million just hoping for something exactly like this

  4. Stephen on said:

    I’ve hated this as for months for these very same reasons. I just saw the ad again and was hoping to fine your article. Thanks!!!

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