Nanosecond: Will Next Year’s Computers Answer Questions Before We Ask Them?

Fast computer robot cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas
Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas

Although I live out here at our house in Springs most of the time, I also go to the city sometimes. We have an apartment there. This past Thursday, I was standing in front of our apartment building in the pouring rain waiting for a car I’d ordered from Lyft to pick me up. The phone said it would be there in four minutes. I had only a short way to go, four blocks altogether to the Hampton Jitney stop at 85th Street, but I wanted a car not only because of the rain but also because I had luggage, an umbrella and a small dog on a leash.

When eight minutes had passed, I decided to give up and just make a run for it to the bus stop. The Jitney is almost always on time to the minute.

Part way there, I realized I had not cancelled the Lyft. I tried to do it before I got to the bus stop, but with all I was carrying and the fact that the rain was dripping on my phone when I tried, I failed to cancel. Two minutes later, the phone dinged. The driver was there. Well, I’d have to eat the charge, which would not be much for a short ride.

On the bus, with the attendant handing out hot towels, starting up the movie and offering red or white wine, I went online. Indeed, there had been a no-show charge.

“If you think we’ve made a mistake, please request a price review,” the Lyft app said when I went to “ride history.” So I filled out the form, mentioning the rain, the luggage, the dog, the four minutes being eight, etc. etc. etc., and pressed SEND.

Just 10 seconds later, I got a reply. It read “Sorry about the rain and the dog. Understand. We have credited the cost of your no-show fee to your account and it can be used for your next ride.” All this in just 10 seconds.

But that wasn’t the end of it.

One minute later, I received this email from them.

“Hi Dan—We noticed a few drivers canceled on your recent ride request, so we paired you with a new driver to make sure you were picked up.

“We know your time is valuable. We want to take care of our riders, so we’re working hard to reduce cancellations on Lyft. Thanks for hanging in there!

“Your friends at Lyft.”

Now, I know about speed reading. But no human could read my long tale of woe in 10 seconds, apply the credit and mention some key words about my problem, then look into it further in the next 60 seconds. This had to be a computer at work. It is amazing and almost scary to think that a computer can show compassion at this kind of ludicrous speed. But here it was.

Later that night, I was watching a Yankees game on TV and had to get up to do something, so I decided to just watch the play-by-play on my ESPN app for a while. For a moment, I was seeing it on TV and on my phone at the same time. The pitcher threw a slider. Ball. Count was now full, three and two. Then I looked down at my phone, and within five seconds the count of 2 and 2 changed to 3 and 2.

ESPN does this with all the games all the time and they keep it all up to date? How do they do this? It’s not possible a human could do it. You’d need a cast of 50,000 sports commentators to enter in that low-and-outside slider and then press the buttons to change the two to a three while doing the same sort of work for all the other games.

Has to be a computer doing this. But how could it possibly do it this fast? Well, it did.

I remember about 20 years ago when the chess master Garry Kasparov, virtually unbeatable, played a match with IBM’S newest chess-playing computer and lost. It made him angry. And he said he would never play against a computer again.

I still think the greatest bargain in America is writing a letter to a friend, folding it in an envelope, adding a stamp on the envelope and then walking it out to the mailbox in front of the house and putting the flag red up. The flag tells the mailman to take away what’s inside before he delivers your incoming mail. With that, he lowers the flag, takes your letter and drives off to your friend in San Francisco two days later.

All this for just 50 cents.

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