Photo by Alexander Popov on Unsplash.

The most powerful man in the world

February 19th, 2019
Photo by Alexander Popov on Unsplash.

On a good day, it would take about four hours to drive from Savannah to Atlanta. That’s what the navigation mode told me yesterday as we were about to hit the road on the way back home. In the end, it took about half an hour more, for no apparent reason.

When I was growing up, I was a voracious reader of short sci-fi stories. Some of those have stuck in my brain and seem to refuse to fade away. I have no idea who the author was, or what the name of the story might have been. But it’s the core idea that plants its root firmly in my brain. The core idea that didn’t even need multiple volumes or elaborate world building to be explored. Just a small, stubborn seed.

One of those short stories focused on the world of near future where everybody still works in a boring office, driving to and from work in their boring gas-powered car. It’s pretty much the world of 2019, if you will, with not much that has changed in the 30-odd years since I’ve read that story. And the author of that story predicted, quite correctly, how much more powerful computers are going to get, and how much more data could be collected about our everyday, mundane activities – to be fed into ever more data hungry algorithms.

The most powerful man in that world has no name. He does not live in a fancy mansion. He does not own a yacht. He does not rub shoulders with the richest of the rich. He runs a small government department whose sole task is to ruthlessly optimize traffic patterns to eliminate any and all traffic delays in this mega-city of the future.

One morning, as the computers keep on crunching the latest traffic flow data on the morning commute of the worker bees, his focus is on this downtown office tower building. The traffic is flowing seamlessly around the plaza on which this office tower building stands, but something is bothering our unnamed hero. A few minutes pass. The man types a few commands on his console. The computer crunches away for a minute or two. The man reads the output and places a phone call.

The next morning that downtown office tower building is no more. The plaza on which it stood has been paved over, and the traffic goes in a straight line where it used to slow down a bit to take that bend. The change goes unnoticed by the morning commuters. And those that used to work in a now-gone building find that their office has a new downtown address.

The next evening the man reviews a report generated by his computer systems. The overall cost of relocating all the corporate tenants, demolishing the building overnight, and paving over the plaza is projected to be reclaimed by the end of business week – in savings accumulated over the aggregated flow of traffic that flows through the newly straightened road segment. The numbers for the first day of traffic changes indicate that it might happen the day before the initial projected date.

The most powerful man in the world reclines in his seat. He takes a short break, smiling inwardly at the job well done. He is looking forward to the next morning, and the next traffic optimization challenge.

By the time we got to the “end” of the traffic jam that added half an hour to our trip back from Savannah, there was no apparent reason in sight. There were no glass or plastic debris strewn across the lanes. There was no car waiting on the shoulder for the tow truck. There was no police presence to direct the flow of traffic around a blocked lane. One second we were driving 30 mph, and the next it was back to 70 mph.

Every time I hit a traffic jam, I find myself thinking about that story. About how much information can be gleaned from large-scale analysis of real-world data. About decisions made based on properly analyzing that data, and how far-reaching those decisions can be.

Let me just leave you with one, certainly hypothetical scenario. Imagine a somewhat busy highway between a medium size port (say, Savannah), and a medium size metro area (say, Atlanta). Imagine that this highway was completed about 40 years ago, and the decision was made to have only two lanes of traffic in both directions for most of its 165-mile stretch. Imagine how many semi-trailer trucks travel the length of that highway, ferrying goods to and from the port.

And now imagine a tired driver that is distracted for a second, rear-ending a family van that braked to avoid a piece of debris, and damaging his own family car in the process. Nobody is hurt as the cars keep getting safer, but it’s going to take some time to get the traffic flowing again. It’s going to take some time to get the police on the scene of the accident to file a proper report that will then be forwarded to the insurance companies. It’s going to take some time to clear the lanes because one of the cars can’t be steered safely off to the side.

In the meanwhile, the traffic keeps on piling up. Longer and longer. Forget the families on their way back home. Let’s take a look at all those semi-trucks on their way to make their delivery. It might take an extra hour to get things going. Maybe a couple of hours. It’s the cost of being in that business, one might say. Something that shipping companies try to figure in to all their planning spreadsheets.

What would you do if you were in the position of that man in the story, if you had the power to ruthlessly optimize traffic for maximum macro efficiency? Would you direct one of the semi trailers to forcefully push the incapacitated van straight away, without waiting for a tow truck? Would the system prefer totaling a van that might have needed just replacing a part or two, and maybe a couple of cosmetic fixes to that truck that pushed the van off the road to clear the traffic? Would the system continue its optimizations further, eventually deciding that in order to minimize, or even eliminate, disruptions to the interstate flow of commercial goods it needs to remove all other traffic from the roads?

No system is perfect. It’s why I love stories that plant these seeds of ideas in my head. You start thinking of the positive aspects of it. And then you don’t stop, and start exploring the negatives. This is why I love “Black Mirror” so much. They build a world that feels to be just around the corner. And every single episode gives you so much to think about.