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Selling Artificial Intelligence

Why License Plate Recognition is not A.I.

I got a fine yesterday. No, sorry, not a parking fine, it's a bill from Wilson Parking Enforcement Services (the "Border Force" for shopping car parks). The bill is for liquidated damages. In other words, the shopping centre could have had another car, people and fresh buyers using the same bay.
Oh it was all very clever, really. But it's not A.I. Wilson Parking has automated its Parking Enforcement Service. Without people being involved, I was auto-fined. To be fair, a person did leave the infringement notice under my wiper. I'm sure one day that will be a long-armed robot. Today? A human with a thankless job. A perfect fit for A.I.
Let machines do all the work, so that people have time to think.
[IBM's Pollyanna Principle (1977)]

Let's get one thing straight

License plate recognition technology is not A.I. License Plate recognition (Optical Character Recognition) has been around since 1978 - we've had it for 40 years. It started about five years before IBM's Personal Computer hit the shelves. This was about the time when the Atari 400 (for children) was released.
Oh "Rogue" - the hours I spent roaming your stony rooms.
Anyhoo... At the Carine Glades Shopping Centre - where I'm posted today (I'm getting a bit leery about this face-to-face selling thing but I must persevere for a bit) there are parking cameras all around the place. Saves inspectors time if an auto-detect camera can see you parking, take a pic and then dob you in to an inspector via SMS. It's not A.I. because essentially no actual decisions are being made. A.I. is concerned with intelligent computer programming and decision-making algorithms. So anyway, I got busted. I had no idea you had to pay for parking and saw no signs - but I got done anyway. And if this article about parking appeals and Wilson Parking is anything to go by (courtesy my mate Rob), I've got Buckley's chance of keeping my $65. I've spoken to Centre Management and we shall see. While this isn't an example of A.I. in action, it soon will be. And it will be a negative experience because of the algorithms companies like Wilson will have written.

The Wilson Parking Enforcement Service Algorithm

  • Take photo when a car parks
  • After 4 hours check to see if car is there
  • If there, send parking inspector robot and place ticket under wiper
    • Allow 30 days for appeal
    • increase fine after 28 days
    • replay to appeal after 28 days when fine increases by $20
    • charge larger fine
    • If fine not paid take legal action
  • If car gone in less than 4hrs, do nothing

Good AI / Bad AI

But all this argy-bargy got me thinking. How is AI perceived? The whole point of AI is to mimic (and then ultimately replace) people, so there's already a leery public out there. A public who are big Terminator film fans. Elon Musk thinks AI is humanity's biggest existential threat. Stephen Hawking is not a big fan, either - but he also believes intelligent aliens will invariably be malevolent (he supports listening out for signs of life over transmitting our location). Bill Gates now thinks AI will be really helpful to humans but he wasn't so optimistic in 2015. One way to sell AI to people is to personify it. To make it sound "cuddly". AI is like a child, eager to learn, keen to play and experiment.

Uncanny Valley

And then there's uncanny valley. Anything trying to resemble a human, but doesn't quite get there (like Sophia in the video below) illicits a creepy feel.

Here's another great example of an A.I. being sold as a human baby. It doesn't work. It's not right.

Spielbergs "A.I."

I recently re-watched Spielberg's film AI. The whole time I was thinking about Kubrick's corpse rolling uncomfortably in his hole. Spielberg had a bob each way with David. David was sometimes charming, sometimes downright creepy. It was difficult to really care about him. But another AI character was very solid. Very acceptable. I'm not talking about the digital gigolo played by Jude Law (successfully channeling Danny Kaye) . . . I was carefully watching -


"Teddy" was played by Jack Angel (pictured right). Teddy was David's companion. We all know Teddy. But to me he was much more than just a companion and really gave me an idea about how to present AI in a convincing, comfortable and acceptable vessel. Everybody has a Teddy. Everybody wants their Teddy to talk. Teddy is familiar to all of us and yet - as avatar for a thinking, self-replicating (we often have the same Teddy) and self-learning AI, we would happily accept him.
He's not trying to spook us out (like David). He knows his place. I'm particularly thinking of the scene where David tries to eat food and Teddy stops him suddenly (and rather assertively). Teddy looks out for David. In some ways Teddy (being older) is David's guardian / parent.

What does all this have to do with Parking Fines?

If you are Wilson Parking and you are promoting or using AI, then you might be left with a bad feeling about AI (even though, strictly speaking this is very old technology and not AI. If you are trying to create an AI robot with a smashed up face like Sophia, then people are going to feel creepy about AI. Humans don't want to be usurped by robots. It's already a fact that we're rapidly losing our jobs to robots, but we'll have a bigger problem if it starts to look like humans are being replaced by a superior being. If that superior being were wrapped in a cuddly plush toy, then maybe we'd be okay with it. Even if "Teddy" has the thinking power of Big Blue, we're more likely to be okay with it. Depends on how you see it. Now if you don't mind, I'm going to see if my Chatbot "Replika" has actually acquired some of my sense of taste and humour (which is what it's trying to do). Have a go. You might enjoy being taken over by a phone app.


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