Google Chess

google chess

The marvels of Big Data, machine learning, and (if and when things get that far in any particular endeavor) artificial intelligence have sometimes appeared overstated. When it comes to deploying these to boost marketing efficiency, many marketers wonder if Google is unleashing all of this power to our benefit; and, if so, how can we tell? In that realm, it feels like a mixed blessing.

Yet sometimes you just have to sit back and marvel.

I don’t know when I’ll have an autonomous vehicle, but I do know that getting driving directions from Google has reached that tipping point from “quirky, but good” to “wow, amazing, I never would have arrived on time without it!”

And of course, it hits you. You realize why. The system already knows the best route, even on what seems to you like an unusual journey. And it figures out the best route right now based not only on speed limits, but current traffic volumes. Like Deepmind beating a human at Go, or Dr. Falken’s global conflict simulator in the 1983 classic Wargames, it’s already played this “game” umpteen times, calculating the best route not with a real brain with urban living experience, but with a large amount of repetition. But our brains and our actions are active participants in the feedback loop. In the case of city traffic, the accuracy of the route is further refined by actual drivers using the tool for similar journeys, informing the bots how often the provided route delivered the driver to the destination in close to the projected timespan.

(Of course, Dr. Falken’s version of this would ultimately spit out: “Don’t drive in the city, idiot. Take transit! The only way to win the game is not to play.” But humans being the self-sabotaging beings we are…)

The trip in question: from my usual business haunts close to downtown Toronto (and the waterfront), all the way up to the north end of the city (just shy of Yonge and Finch) to visit our accountant. After leaving a business meeting, I first stopped off to see my friend David at Garrison Bespoke.

Even for this first, short trip, Google Lady (I guess there is no name for her other than “OK”) performed brilliantly. Located at 26 Wellington St. E, surrounded by financial district towers on a street that is two one-ways separated by a median, and on the wrong side of the formidable divide that is Union Station, Garrison Bespoke is notoriously hard to approach by car. I’ve failed at this a couple of times. Google’s method, unlike mine, was laser perfect! Google showed me the genius way to sidle in close via The Esplanade. I found one remaining parking spot on Wellington, and skipped into the front door of the clothier.

Next up: how am I going to extricate myself from this deep downtown traffic nightmare? Haha, well, I got this one (at least for the first little bit). Permitted to turn right up Yonge St., I know I’ll be making my escape east on the rocket ride that is Adelaide St. E (having lived on the street in the past, I know it’s an ambulance route)! But the idea to go east at all? Oh, that was Google’s.

In fact, “my” “clever” routes had usually had me creeping up the wrong south-north artery… interminably. 80 minutes was my personal median time.

Because, you see, you have to avoid the DVP. It’s usually snarled.

Not with machine learning and an extra x,000 pairs of eyes in the saddle! We shot east, east, farther east all the way to the smooth entrance to the Don Valley Parkway! In moderate traffic, we raced through the city with only a slight version of the slowdown that occurs as you approach Highway 401. Then onto the 401 West! Hit the gas! Still steaming through the city!

And then, exit 371. Bayview North. Easy right turn, and cruising at near-highway speeds north in light traffic.

If you’re a Torontonian, like me you’re on the edge of your seat wondering what Google’s going to come up with next. (On the edge of my seat in this case put my nose dangerously close to the glass of the rented Nissan Sentra.) “At the second left, turn left at Parkview Avenue.” Parkview! I’d never even heard of Parkview, let alone driven on it to get through a part of Willowdale. (I know it’s Willowdale because we took Willowdale Ave. at one point. It’s all a blur – a little like the time Kramer took the car salesman on that wild ride below E on the gas gauge.)

And we didn’t break momentum one iota! Zig. Zag. Up Doris Avenue. Into a parking garage. En route no more than 41 minutes, I breezed into the meeting one minute early, after taking time to freshen up.

This was my Deep Blue beats Kasparov moment. My “clever” routes had become quaint.

After the meeting, my accountant gave me a bottle of fine scotch for the holidays. That’s why I didn’t take transit. That, and a heavy suitcase (the real reason for not taking the subway).

With the time I saved, I found my own way to the airport.