I was behind the wheel when my phone vibrated with an incoming text. It was the day before Washington state’s new, stringent “distracted driving” law (or DUIE—Driving Under the Influence of Electronics) went into effect. From now on, we can get a hefty fine for just holding our cell phone, never mind looking at it. Other distractions, like eating or taking a sip from our latte, can result in a thirty dollar “secondary” fine. This in the home state of Starbucks!
Feeling a little rebellious, I read the text, and I took a swig from my thermos. The message said, in effect, “Hope you’re feeling grounded today.” It referred to a conversation the sender and I’d had the day before. Grounded? Very much so. I was sitting in an automated carwash that had engulfed my vehicle with sudsy water, then inexplicably stopped. No rinse. No blow-dry. Just soap suds slowly drying all over my car.
I should’ve known this was not going to go well. At the get-go, when I pulled up to the automatic payment machine and inserted my credit card, it was rejected. “Network error,” beeped the LED display, which I could not read because the sun was in my eyes. On my knees, in hopes of reading the LED, I inserted a crisp, new twenty dollar bill, then a wrinkled, ripped bill, both of which were spit back as if the machine were sticking out its tongue.
This was becoming a battle of wits with Artificial Intelligence. I won’t say which of us was employing AI. Finally, my debit card was accepted. I got the green light to enter the tunnel of suds.
When the machine quit working, I waited to be certain I wouldn’t get inundated with rinse water, then got out of the car to phone the emergency service number posted on the wall. By now, several vehicles were lined up, waiting. A guy emerged from the car immediately behind me and walked into the wash bay, asking in a surprised voice, “Mary?” Bob! Hadn’t seen him in years. We chatted for a few minutes, catching up, ‘cuz that’s what you do in a small town. Then we remembered the cars in line, everyone waiting patiently, no one honking, ‘cuz that’s NOT what you do in a small town.
I called the service number and the guy wearily asked, “Are you in neutral?” Ah, I’d forgotten that. I’d automatically shifted to park.
“There are sensors that can tell when you’re not in neutral,” he said. That, it seems to me, is carrying AI a bit far.
Later, I texted my friend about the “grounding” carwash incident. She sent an emoticon of a lop-sided smile. I’m skeptical of emoticons. Seems to me that with 171,476 English words at our disposal (says the Oxford English Dictionary), we don’t need goofy little icons to say what we mean. But she chose just the right two words to go with the smiley face: “Rueful laughter.”