My GPS Rules!/Prepare for Your Robot Overlords

MOLLY SCHOEMANN:

It’s easy to mock the tiny GPS unit.  There it sits, mounted on your dashboard, waiting patiently to tell you to turn left in one-tenth of a mile.  Oblivious to your snappy retorts and obscene innuendoes; like a humorless Dudley-Do Right, it is the ultimate straight man in your traveling comedy team.

Despite their usefulness, it has been argued that GPS units represent a scary step in the direction of computers becoming increasingly bossy and commanding.  I can understand this concern, although I fail to see the downside of any technology that brings our society closer to the utopian vision shown in the world of Knight Rider.  Perhaps if GPS units were a little hipper, a little sassier—a little more like sidekicks and less like schoolmarms, they would find greater acceptance in mainstream commuting society.

I will grant that the voice technology for these devices might benefit from some streamlining.  While fancier models give you several options, even those merely allow you to choose whether you prefer a dry, mechanical male or a prissy, annoyed female voice to tell you that you’ve missed your exit.  (Sometimes, for kicks, when I am only a block or so away from my house and don’t really need directions, I will switch GPS to the Spanish Language version and listen to it tell me sharply to “hacer un U-Turn”.)  As it is, what these gadgets lack in personality, they make up for in Global Positioning.

I would also like to point out that if you decide not to listen to your GPS unit, it isn’t as though it forces you into an electronic game grid where you must play gladiator-style Jai-Alai to the death with Jeff Bridges.  (That model isn’t set to enter stores until spring of 2009.)  In fact, its inexhaustible, judgment-free robot patience is a big part of what makes my GPS so helpful to me.  I appreciate its tireless efforts to recalculate my route when I am driving erratically in circles because I can’t figure out what it’s telling me to do.  A human companion would have thrown his hands up long ago and stuffed me in the trunk, but GPS will never do that.  Its only concern is getting me where I want to go, and it also doesn’t have hands.  I am additionally grateful that my many driving mistakes and misadventures remain our little secret.  It is one thing to get hopelessly lost with an out-of-town guest; you can’t turn those off and leave them in the car at the end of the trip.  I highly doubt that my GPS complains about me to anyone else who drives my car.  I would feel betrayed to learn that it was telling others, “Prepare to turn left in two miles.  Molly ALWAYS manages to miss this one.  Honestly, can she even dress herself?”

My dear GPS, I will follow you to the ends of the earth, as long as you can estimate how many minutes it will take me to get there.  Your knowledge of local roads and awareness of where I am at all times thrills me to my befuddled core.  You are the sunshine of my commute, the apple of my dashboard.

Perhaps I should provide a little more background to explain why I am singing the praises of this device.  I am not technically disabled…except perhaps in the literal sense of the word.  I have the navigational ability (and self-preservation instincts) of a drunk wind-up toy.  You know those people who have a lousy sense of direction and get lost all the time?  If you took all of those people, and combined them into one completely incompetent, perpetually lost person, and then put a bag over that person’s head, spun them around three times, screamed in their ear with a megaphone and then dropped them off in the middle of the desert—that would approximate my condition every time I open my front door.  My sense of direction often seems more like a badly disguised death wish.

Upon learning that I was moving to a new state where driving was the only way to really get anywhere in less than two days, my friends and family were concerned.  My lifespan in North Carolina, if left to my own devices to find my way around, was estimated at two weeks.  Fortunately, my parents’ parting gift to me was a small, unassuming GPS unit.  It was a wonderful gift.  Thanks to GPS, I am drunk with navigational power, and high on estimated arrival times.  It is the only reason I am here today, writing this piece.  (That, and because it threatened to run over my dog in three-tenths of a mile if I didn’t; but I digress).  I only wish the good people at GPS could make a model that told you which way was front.  I would buy two.

TED BERG:

Love your GPS? Make way for your robot overlords.

Did you think the war would come instantly, that one day we’d wake up entrenched in conflict with advanced humanoid cyborgs? They’re smarter than that. They’re starting small.

The GPS device, that one on your dashboard, is the little bug going kachoo, the insidious robot entering our daily lives to butter us up for the roasting we will inevitably suffer at their mechanical hands.

Think about it: How many other machines tell you what to do?

The purpose of the GPS is two-fold: It gets humans used to the idea of taking instructions from a machine, and it slowly robs our species of information, the type that would be pretty goddamn useful in global warfare.

In The Office, when Michael Scott turned his car into a lake based on instructions from a GPS device, I concluded that the show had finally become too ridiculous to enjoy. Then, a month later, I watched my father – a smart man, not a buffoon like Scott – take his GPS device’s advice and turn the wrong way on a road he’d driven several times before, despite my repeated instructions to choose the other prong of the fork. As we crossed the Williamsburg Bridge for an unnecessary trek through downtown Manhattan during rush hour, I realized that the machines had started to make headway.

Now don’t get to thinking I’m some sort of technophobe. I realize that I need machines to make my coffee, revolve my ties around my closet and trim my nose hair. But I maintain mastery of my microwave. I put my toaster to work every morning and come back five minutes later when its job is done.

Heck, I even own a Roomba and schedule it to automatically vacuum my floors. Yes, it’s a robot that I’ve welcomed into my life, and I realize how it might jeopardize my health in the long run if it becomes self-aware. But it’s pointless to resist the advance of robots altogether. I’ve made sure that my Roomba knows its role: serving me.

With the GPS, it’s not as clear. Yes, we program it to give us directions to the places we want to go. But once that’s done, the line between human master and robot servant becomes blurred. Am I the only one who objects to the robot woman’s tone when she tells me to turn left in 100 feet, or mentions that she’s recalculating?

And it’s not even like her directions are good. Half the time, the robot leads you down a path you’ve never taken before to a destination you’re already familiar with, and the directions are rarely better than those you’ve long since internalized. That robot stuck to your windshield is simply inconveniencing you, all while making you question what you already know and doubt your pitiful human intelligence.

All part of the plan. As we become more and more comfortable taking her instructions, we will become less likely to doubt them. And once we’ve given her our blind faith, the robots will make their move. You want to go to Taco Bell? Great, I’ll take you there. We just have to stop off at the cyborg factory first, and hey, maybe you should get out of the car, walk 200 feet, turn left, and volunteer for a job on the assembly line, churning out the machines that will eventually spell your demise.

Soon enough, we’ll be completely accustomed to listening to our robot masters, and when the war starts, without our trusty GPS devices, we won’t know where anything is. Good luck escaping when you can’t find the escape route, or when the double-agent on your dashboard is leading you right into the vice grip of the robot empire.

You’re telling me you’d be dead in a ditch on the side of the road if you didn’t have your GPS device. Maybe that’s true, but with all due respect, good. The last thing we need in times like these is another ‘botnik like you. I, for one, will be studying maps and stockpiling weapons to combat the rise of the robots.

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