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Jewish World Review
Nov. 30, 2012 / 17 Kislev, 5773
Soon your car may resemble Hal --- 'I'm sorry, Dave'
From the 1930s through the '50s, sci-fi magazines routinely predicted the advent of the personal robot, capable of doing a wide range of chores and leaving its owner free to indulge other pursuits -- like reading sci-fi magazines. — Many of us are still waiting for a practical flying automobile, but the personal robot has arrived and not in the form most of us imagined. We envisioned humanoid-type robots like "Star War's" C3PO or the great galumphing robot that came down the ramp of the flying saucer in "The Day the Earth Stood Still."
Well, the personal robot is here, or at least very close, and it looks like nothing out of science fiction. It looks like, and in fact is, the family car.
The average American, who doesn't have the time to rummage through the back pages of obscure technical publications like The Wall Street Journal, is probably unaware of how many mundane functions the automobile has begun to take over from its human overseer, whose usefulness to the whole enterprise of actually driving the car is diminishing rapidly.
The car can drive itself, more safely than you can; navigate itself; give you directions in a slightly unnerving dominatrix tone; and parallel-park itself, a dwindling skill among Americans. A popular TV ad has a car, unaided by the driver, directed into a tight parking space by four doves.
Don't believe the doves; they're a decoy intended to distract you from the more far-reaching plans of the robot intelligence at work, likely from a server in some remote location where you can't mess with its plans to look after your welfare.
There are already cars that won't start if their drivers have had too much to drink. The laws have taken that decision out of our hands. In the name of public health, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has banned overly sugared drinks 16 ounces or larger.
That ban was enacted after extensive public discussion and city-council hearings. Everybody knew the ban was coming. But do you know what will be going on in your car, and soon?
Sensors in the steering wheel, head rest, seat cushion and dashboard monitors will measure your pulse and blood pressure, and, after your seat belt suddenly tightens automatically, pinning you to the seat, the GPS voice will say, in what it imagines is a reassuring voice, "This will only sting for a second," and your blood sample is on its way to the onboard lab.
If the car finds that your cholesterol level is too high, there is no way it is going to let you stop for lunch at Roly Poly's, "Home of the 32-ounce Heart Attack On a Bun," and the endless refills of Hi Fructoid, the energy drink that promises a four-hour sugar high or your money back.
If the car senses stress, lack of muscle tone and a lingering weight problem, it may pull over and shove you out the passenger door, forcing you to chase after your car for an invigorating, heart-pumping 30 minutes before it lets you back in the driver's seat.
We have no firsthand knowledge of this, but the following scenario does not seem totally implausible.
A woman comes into a car dealership, looking to upgrade to a better model, and the saleswoman leads her to a backroom and has her try out a new feature: a dashboard-mounted on-board mammography that keeps track of scheduled exams.
"But," the customer protests, "this is painful, uncomfortable and embarrassing."
"That's nothing," says the saleswoman. "You should hear what the men have to say about unannounced front-seat prostate exams."
Meanwhile, the car has sensed gaps in your education and the sound system will play nothing but Donald Kagan's four-volume history of the Peloponnesian Wars. Relax. The wars only lasted 27 years and you'll be a better person for it, almost worthy of your personal robot.
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