Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Smart Cars?


Decades ago, I wrote a column called “Mr. Goodbyte.”It used car metaphors to explain computers. Things change. Now cars are complicated and a whole lot smarter than they used to be. Smarter? Not really. Time for new metaphors.

Today, you can buy cars that can park themselves—without any driver input. But, the car is still a car, a machine incapable of human thought. The computers inside that park automatically are also only machines. As for driver input, I lied.

The car can’t do all of the parking. It can’t decide when to park, so it needs a human to tell it to begin. Nor can it change its “mind” midway and decide to park somewhere else. However, the driver can, even as the car is parking itself.

Another thing the car can’t do is read signs saying whether parking is legal or not. Nor does it know if the driver has the correct change for metered parking. Or if there’s a bag over the meter saying “No parking, parade today.” I could go on.

Don’t get me wrong. I love cars (good ones) and respect many of these clever tricks. Having owned cars for over fifty-five years, I am amazed how dependable they have become. Unfortunately, these improvements create more complexity.

Cars, like our computer devices, have become too complicated to fix for most repairs. Cars are loaded with clever interactive screens intended to be helpful. Unfortunately, these smart screens are so distracting they’re more a danger than a help.

Car makers will continue to use words like “smart” to describe their car’s capabilities. Using the “S” word does not make cars smart in the way humans are smart. People say their pets are smart. They don’t mean compared to humans but to other pets.

It’s only a matter of time before a car maker claims its vehicle is a genius. Again, compared to other cars, not humans. Computers make cars smart, but computers too are only smart compared to other computers. Compared to humans, they’re not as smart as your pet—unless it’s a pet rock.

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