Last weekend we went with friends on a skiing trip to the Poconos, Pennsylvania. Our trip was a simple one and half hour drive from North New Jersey to just over the Delaware Gap – the border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
On our way down, our driver and co-pilot took out their respective iPhones and entered the address for our final destination on their own preferred – or working at the time – GPS systems: Waze and Google maps, for good measure, the built in car GPS was also turned on and the address was plugged in – did I mention, this is a brand new car, with a brand new updated GPS?
We drove down RT 280 to RT 80 to exit 309. On our way down, GPS locations and directions between the 3 different GPS systems were compared and verified several times. There was a moment when one robotic voice in one GPS indicated to take exit 309 while another similar – but not the same – robotic voice indicated exit 310, panic ensued, I suggested we split the difference and take exit 309.5 but my suggestion was dismissed.
Eventually, the three GPS systems came to the same conclusion and we happily took exit 309 on RT 80, disaster averted.
During our visit to the Poconos, we drove around to the same places over and over – the ski rental shop, spa resort, the ski resort, back to our rental place. Every trip, GPS systems were taken out and compared – we ended up in the wrong place twice.
At one point I got a hold of the wheel and turned all GPS systems off, I could not take the argument over the robotic voices any more.
This made me think that the purpose of GPS systems and all other apps on our phones is to make life easier; GPS systems are map readers that talk to you, if you don’t know where you are going, the GPS would tell you how to get there, you no longer have to stop for directions, no need for a paper map. But once the GPS shows you the way, then you turn it off or, if you are not quite sure, you turn it back on as an aid.
GPS systems, predictive modeling, software applications are just tools to help us to complete tasks but not substitutes to our thinking or task completion, and it is human beings that fill the gaps and complete the context in a way that machines cannot – and example of this is the GPS app Waze, users fill in the gaps by entering information about road conditions, police cameras, hazards in the road, etc.
Machines are aids to the human mind, and their interfaces support human actions and decision making, not the other way around. The purpose of all applications that engulf our lives is to facilitate decisions and expedite activities and increase productivity.
We still need to be able to read a map, find our way around and remember the roads we travelled, just as we did 10 years ago, before we handed our minds and full attention to our portable mini computers.
As a technologist and software developer, I aim to create the most accurate, fast and useful applications to aid people, but I am also aware of the limitations that machines and software have. As applications increase accuracy and machines speed up, we will get more help from them, but our minds will always have fill the context and the gaps.