Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Not Smart Car


A new Audi A6 commercial (“The Road”) says this car makes 2,000 decisions a second. It wants you to think these decisions are somehow comparable to human decisions. They aren’t. Nor does the car make decisions: it’s the computers in the car. And computer decisions are nothing like human decisions.

The fundamental computer decision is the classic IF x THEN y, ELSE z instruction, where x compares two numbers. The two things could be EQUAL, or one GREATER or LESS THAN the other. Based on the answer, the computer does y or z. If that sounds simplistic, it is. You can, of course, build a huge computer program with many thousands of these instructions and claim the program makes human-like decisions.

So, does the Audi A6 run huge computer programs that make 2,000 of these complex decisions a second? Or do its computers make 2,000 simple decisions a second? They don’t really say, do they? But they want you to think the car makes the kind of complex decisions we humans make. And I’ll bet it doesn’t. Not 2,000 a second.

Is this commercial disingenuous or just stupid? I’ll let you decide. While you’re thinking (something else the car doesn’t do), think about this: This commercial also says the car “reads your handwriting.” What? While I’m driving? How intelligent is that? Well, it’s more intelligent than the drivers in the short version of this commercial who are too busy checking their email to pay attention to the road.

This commercial says the road is not intelligent. They imply their car is intelligent—in many cases more than the driver who’s too busy checking email. Audi wants you to trust their car’s intelligence to take care of you in these unintelligent situations. Although the car can do a lot to help, it is not intelligent and it doesn’t make human-like decisions.

How different is human decision making? Here are a few books you could read about how we, the humans, actually make decisions, actually see the road, and actually drive our cars.

Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us
Winifred Gallagher, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life
Sheena Iyengar, The Art of Choosing
Joseph T. Hallinan, Why We Make Mistakes
Maggie Jackson, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age
Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less

(For another comment on another not smart car see this post.)

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