How the Computers Will Win

a.k.a Lemmings, Buffalo & a little Automation (Oh My!)
Author’s Note: I considered abandoning this post several times, and maybe I should have but, I was having fun writing it, it’s been a long week and I’m in a bit of a twisted mood. If you enjoy it great, otherwise the regular Ryan will be “back” on Monday.

It’s only a matter of time now, and it’s entirely possible this post could be what puts it all together for them but it’s worth the risk to ensure we are prepared.

Of Lemmings…
I’ve found it interesting in the past few months as you start to read more and more stories of people blindly following directions/instructions offered to them by an electronic device, usually from their car’s GPS navigation system.

I don’t want to make light of this particular story but what brought this topic back top of mind for me was the unfortunate death of James Kim, a senior editor at CNET, after he and his family got stranded in the middle of nowhere on a snowy road. Partially because they followed the directions that they got from the Google Maps site (See Mathew Ingram’s post).

The first stories that caught my eyes were of a town called Luckington in the UK. Due to a road closure people were searching out alternate routes via their GPS system, one of which took them right through a road which was more often than not impassable due to water. Not realizing that “Depth Sensor” was not on the list of features for their system they soldiered on into the water, despite the numerous warning signs.

Another is the story of cars being guided up a road suitable only for 4×4’s where they subsequently get stuck and have to back up along the edge of a 100ft cliff. Again, all as the result of people following their GPS nav system.

These all of course invoke thoughts of the highly-addictive game of Lemmings:


Blissfully ignorant creatures that simply follow a single path carved out for them by an unseen force. Put a big pool of water in front of them and they’ll wade right in – because surely the “unseen force” would have put a wall there or something if it wasn’t safe. In fact I’m sure the thought that goes through someone’s head as they plow into the ford isn’t “Something isn’t right about this” but rather “If I couldn’t make it they wouldn’t have suggested it”.

It appears the computers have figured out one thing – When in doubt humans will generally do as they’re told.

Of Buffalos…
So now they know our weakness. How best to exploit it?

I suggest it is only a matter of time before a sinister, self aware computer stumbles upon the notion of “Buffalo Jumps“.


A buffalo jump was a cliff or steep bank over which herds of buffalo were driven to their deaths

…Drive lines were made to direct the herds to the jump. The drive lines were rows of rock piles known as “dead men”. These were arranged like a funnel; the rows were wide apart at the prairie end and gradually narrowed toward the jump end. Hunters lying behind the “dead men” rock piles would spring up and wave robes to frighten the animals and keep them inside the funnel.”

As we’ve proven above the herding aspect is not that difficult – we’ll go where they tell us. The trouble with most roads though (for computers), is they typically don’t conveniently end in an unsafe way.

And besides, at the end of the day, that tiny little bean of common sense will kick in at the last minute if peril is too obvious. For example, suggesting we continue straight through the brick wall straight in front of us will still be met with some skepticism, by most people. Of course, someone will do it, but one could argue that the computers are hardly doing society a disservice in that case. They’ll need to catch us off guard and move us in such masses that we can’t stop in time and then, like the Buffalo the vehicles behind will push the ones at the front of the edge.

But aha! a fault in their plan – you’d need a big road to make that work and no one would ever build a road that ends at the edge of a cliff. Would they?

Of Automation…

(Since you’re still reading and clearly have humored me with the Lemmings & Buffalo I’ll ush my luck and stretch this one to the breaking point.)

This is where the last part of their plan comes together, and again it’ll be us architecting our own undoing. For those in an industry where it’s common to respond to an RFP/Q – how often do you simply find those documents on an online system? Probably quite often, and only getting more frequent.

So, when the self-aware computers arrive what’s to stop them from having their fellow systems sneak a couple of extra RFP’s in the mix?

RFQ: Land Survey for the Construction of new Highway & connecting Bridge
RFQ: Road Design with accommodation for Future Connecting Bridge
RFQ: Road Construction

Again, when the forces of capitalism combine with forces of “Lemmings” crazy things can happen. Several would bid (heck maybe their computers would generate the quote themselves). Someone would win. And when Construction Guy 1 says to Construction Guy 2 “Shouldn’t we be building a bridge”, CG2 will probably shrug his shoulders and say “Job says build the road, the bridge ain’t my problem”.

A Final Victory Surely by the time we have a self-aware computer everyone will have a nav system (as an added bonus the cars may be driving themselves at that point). We’ll be out driving about and suddenly our usual route changes a bit. We don’t question it though, with real-time traffic reporting & construction info etc the route often changes as we go along – but that trusty little synthesized “Turn Left” voice has always gotten us there on time, so we follow.

What we don’t know is that all around the globe hundreds of new roads have been built, paid for by a computer’s reallocation of monies in an account. The time has come and the computer’s decide to throw the “switch”.

After a few minutes we start thinking “Wow. Traffic must be a mess we’re really going out of the way”. An hour later we’re puzzled, but we also have no idea where we are – so we keep following our trusted sidekick.

And then… “Turn Right”

The Aftermath

It won’t be pretty, thanks to their knowledge of how long it’ll take you to get somewhere the computers will ensure the nav systems pace everyone to ensure a prompt arrival – small cars up front big rigs & buses at the rear. Some will surviv
e but by then the computers will have shut down all communication methods and we’re back to drums & smoke signals for a while.

There’s probably a lesson in here somewhere, although I wonder if It’s best for society though if we leave it for people to figure it out for themselves.

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