While channel surfing the TV this weekend, I happened to stop on an old show called “My Mother The Car.” (Ok, I’m dating myself, but it was filmed in color, as opposed to some other favorite old shows still in black-and-white). The fictional car, a 1928 Porter built for the TV series, was the reincarnation of the owner’s deceased mother. The car was always available for advice and helped the owner with various problems that could be solved within a 22-minute sitcom. With all of its life experiences, I’m sure that car was smarter than a Fifth Grader.
This show got me thinking about how cars have changed over the years. New cars today offer many advanced features for convenience as well as safety. Some features involve simple mechanical design (think crumple zones). Many other features rely on complex microcontrollers and software (think collision avoidance). I’m no car aficionado, but I think cars are better and smarter than they were years ago.
But in comparison with today’s cars, how does the Fifth Grader stack up? My car remembers how I like the car seat, steering wheel, and brake pedal positions. My Fifth Grader can’t remember that dirty clothes go in the hamper. My car is constantly “thinking” and figuring things out, and it listens to me; my Fifth Grader often has a dazed look on his face and only hears me when I say “here is your allowance.” My car tells me when something is wrong, like low tire pressure; my Fifth Grader will continue to wear sneakers with holes in the soles until they go out of style. My car executes complex algebraic and trigonometric functions; my Fifth Grader struggles with long division without a calculator. My car tries to protect itself when I’m away; my Fifth Grader knows karate, but I still can’t leave him alone for very long, certainly not overnight in a parking lot. My car can parallel-park itself; ok, I would not let my Fifth Grader try this anyway, but many people with drivers’ licenses and advanced degrees have yet to master that feat.
My car represents the collective intelligence of thousands of people who have adopted modern development lifecycles that follow functional safety standards like IEC 61508 and ISO 26262. Design reviews and testing help drive out the systematic errors that try to creep in. That doesn’t make it perfect, but it is a giant leap toward getting things right the first time. Overall, I think I want my car to be smarter than a Fifth Grader.
My Fifth Grader represents the collective intelligence of… well, me and my wife. I suppose my Fifth Grader is at a disadvantage for now. But there is hope that my Fifth Grader will eventually accumulate knowledge faster than my car, knowledge that is more diverse and broad than any car. Maybe someday he’ll be one of the people that make sure cars are smarter than a Fifth Grader.