From the outset, I confess that I’m not what you’d call ‘savvy’ when it comes to artificial intelligence. In fact, the first time I saw the acronym ‘AI’ in a BBC report about robots, I wondered how artificial ‘insemination’ had crept into the message as, being involved in the equestrian industry, with a focus on breeding, AI only had one meaning, until then.

So, I’m guessing GPS is what would be categorized as a form of AI – given that it captures information and delivers it, through the form of a human voice, to simpletons with no sense of direction. Hah! Does that statement give you some idea of where I’m going with this? Hah, again! ‘Going’ is definitely the operative word in what follows, or perhaps not.

My very limited experience with GPS – or Global Positioning System – (unless you happen to be a civil servant or a fan of Yes Minister, when you could be forgiven for thinking it refers to a ‘government policy statement), has, so far led me to believe that not all AI is created equal. In other words, like human brains, not all GPS units possess the same level of intelligence – which appears to be more related to generational factors than cost. Although, having in the ability to update GPS software which may take account of temporary road closure or construction projects, does create a bigger dent in the wallet. Apparently!

Anyway – two test cases seem the best way to illustrate my knowledge, or lack thereof, when it comes to GPS/AI.

First: As owners of a vehicle that definitely predates any form of AI technology, a friend offered to loan us a GPS for our recent marathon drive from BC to Lake Chapala, Mexico. Great! Having already created a day-by-day driving plan using online mapping, including distance and overnight stops in convenient hotels, it was gratifying to be able to watch the miles (or kilometres) unfold on the GPs as we rolled through seven US states – arriving at each destination in the allotted time. Of course, this level of efficiency anticipated our ability to enter the correct information into the GPS each morning and, as we correctly negotiated Carlsbad, New Mexico, and not Carlsbad, California – score one for human intelligence!

However, on a few occasions, we definitely entered an unexpected AI war zone: man/woman vs GPS. Take Nuevo Laredo, for instance, and trying to find the immigration office the morning we crossed the Mexican border. After entering the address several times, and being told none to politely that the address ‘cannot be found’ and to ‘check our spelling’, we abandoned AI in favour of an old-fashioned print-out of the directions. Okay – if we were being really old-fashioned it would have been hand-written, but needs must! Strike one for the GPS. But also strike one for us as we still got lost. But, in our defence, it was still dark and road signs were unlit!

Next – Nuevo Laredo to Matehuala – a six-hour journey that bypasses Monterrey (yep!) and Saltillo…!!! As the GPS relies on driving direction to feed information from the satellite to the vehicle, whenever you have two roads running parallel, the AI person (in our case a well-modulated female voice whom we nicknamed GPS Gertie) sometimes appears to become confused and somewhat less precise with her commands – as was the case when we were supposed to bypass Saltillo but didn’t. In this case, a cross-over from one lane to the next would have put us on the right road, instead, we took a parallel road and ended up in ‘Centro’. Of course, as soon as Gertie realized we’d taken a wrong turn she started to emphatically instruct us to ‘Make a U-turn as soon as possible.’ Which is fine if there is a convenient and useable ‘Retorno’ in the not too distant future. In this case, we’d rolled into the centre of town… But, wait! Gertie demonstrated that she was capable of recalibrating our route to get us back on the right road. Sort of! It seems, that the GPS we were using is programmed to always recalibrate to the shortest route between two points. Therefore, having passed the point of no return to the original road, GPS decides that human intelligence has demonstrated a preferred route and recalibrates accordingly. Great – assuming that the humans actually know where they’re ‘going’. Nearly 100 kilometres and 90 minutes later we’re back on the right road. Strike two for the GPS – but also our bad for demonstrating that we thought we did know where we were going.

Sadly, our borrowed GPS also didn’t have the updating capability, so also didn’t recognized that a new road just outside Guadalajara leading directly to Chapala would have recovered the lost 100 kilometres and 90 minutes driving time – to say nothing of the mega stress of negotiating a labyrinth of busy city suburbs, cobbled streets, market stalls, donkey carts, wandering cows and kamikaze motor scooters.

But, all’s well that ends well, and we arrived at our destination, road weary and frazzled, but not heading to the divorce court!

So, yesterday, I encountered a different version of woman vs AI on a trip from Chapala to Guadalajara with a friend. Having missed a last-minute turn into the car park of our shopping destination, the GPS went silent! No ‘make a U-turn at the first opportunity’… Nada! So, after friend confidently but wrongly thought she could return to the right road, we resorted once again to the trusty GPS. Okay! The map appears and we’re instructed to take the next right. (I have to quickly interject that our Gertie’s voice is rather pleasant compared to the synthesized and disjointed pronunciations of friend’s GPS. Whatever!)

GPS: “Take the next turn right”

Friend: “I don’t think this is right” – having already passed the road. GPS: “Take the next turn right”

Friend – eyeing the cobbled street: “No this definitely isn’t right.”

Me: “Um!”

GPS: “In 100 metres take the next turn right – Calle Aldama”

As I’m now holding the GPS and AI is becoming quite emphatic that we should turn right, friend finally concurs, but still not convinced, even though other friend confirms we are definitely on Calle Aldama. A few bottom-scraping rumble strips later, and we’re back on the right road and only two minutes from our destination. In this case, the shortest distance between two points was undeniably a GPS success.

The moral of this epic GPS tale is that it would appear that the dividing line between human and artificial intelligence is exceedingly thin. But, where do we draw the line and how far do we trust?




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