Of Google Maps and common sense

Jean Claude Elias
Jean-Claude Elias is a computer engineer and a classically trained pianist and guitarist. He has been regularly writing IT articles, reviewing music albums, and covering concerts for more than 30 years. (File photo: Jordan News)
Fifteen years ago, I took a trip to the US and drove 2,000 miles across three neighboring states: Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Before leaving Amman, a dear friend told me: “When you rent the car in the US, be sure to ask for a GPS, it will make your touring easier and more pleasurable.” I argued that I did not really need what was back then new mobile technology, that I had an extensive experience in travelling and driving around the world, and that I would never lose my way.اضافة اعلان

Somehow, I ended up following my friend’s advice, and paid $35 more per day just for the GPS device rental option. The result, of course, was a memorable: a most enjoyable experience and precious time saved thanks to the technology. It let me discover the three beautiful American states without using any printed map or asking anyone for directions, as I used to do on previous trips, in the US or in Europe. In Jordan, I was wondering when we were going to have GPS.

Now Google Maps has become the norm, has wiped out most other GPS applications and is used by a large number of drivers in Jordan. We trust the app not just to find the destination we want to reach in an easy manner, but to know where there is a traffic jam and, possibly, avoid it, how long will it take us to get to a point, etc.

Although street naming and building numbering has received a major overhaul a few years ago in Amman, people now find it faster, easier, and more precise to indicate addresses by exchanging Google Maps’ locations, instead of providing street name and house number. It is hard to believe that all this has happened and has become a must-have in only a couple of years or so.

However, perfect software has yet to be invented, and Google Maps, like any other application, and as good as it can be, is not flawless. From the biggest and most important (Windows, for example), to the simplest and humblest (weather forecast apps, online banking apps), software products do err, from time to time, to a lesser or more severe degree. The damage is variable.

I use Google Maps extensively in and around Amman. Not a single week passes by without at least one error occurring. Sometimes the system asks me to go around the roundabout ahead, whereas I should have taken the tunnel under it. At other times, it just misses the turnoff or the exit by a few meters or a few seconds – enough to make me waste 15 or 20 minutes to re-adjust the route, until the system does its recalculation. Other drivers, in other countries, sometime report more serious damage because of such navigation errors.

What does this tell us? Should we stop trusting or using Google Maps and the like? Of course not; the pros largely outbalance the cons. Applications’ limited faults just tell us that while using and trusting software of all kinds is the only way to go, we should at the same time apply common sense, use personal judgment, and remember that we – not the application – should always make the final decision in the end.

The same dear friend who recommended I rent a GPS 15 years ago, and who happens to be a prominent lawyer, often tells me: “Before there was law there was common sense.”

This is a key word here “common sense”. I guess this should apply to practically everything we do, and to the ever-increasing number of automated actions we take every day, more particularly in the high-tech digital world.

Would you drive right into a concrete wall if Google Maps told you so? Would you send your bank account details if an incoming email asked you to, without checking and double checking who sent it to you? The answer is clear in both cases, and it is determined by common sense. These are only two examples. There will be countless other cases where blindly following the application would lead to serious damage.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is invading all kinds of software, to make it, well, more intelligent and smarter. It is the trend and it is only going to grow and change many aspects of our lives, from online medical diagnosis to self-driving cars. Whereas traditional software was never designed to make decisions for you, AI-driven programs are.

AI-driven algorithms are already invading major banks, large corporations and systems. As an example of application, they are hiring and firing employees without any human intervention. Harvard Business School management professor Joseph Fuller spoke at length about this very case on the French TV news series Tech 24.

Theverge.com has confirmed that Google Maps is using AI, expected from this major player in the high-tech game.

For the coming few years, we should perhaps learn how to develop and reach a new level of common sense, one that enables us to act quickly and choose in a split second if we go with the decision taken by the smart digital systems or switch to manual, and override the algorithm’s decision to make our own.

The writer is a computer engineer and a classically trained pianist and guitarist. He has been regularly writing IT articles, reviewing music albums, and covering concerts for more than 30 years.

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