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Automaxpectations

That blasted convection air conditioner under the window, with its shuddering compressor and rattling plastic cover, comes on every 20 minutes or so, wrenching me from my sound sleep. I cannot live without it, and I must let it do its job. I am in a hotel room and hobble over in the middle of the night to override the automatic fan setting, and at least have that ON all the time. Then I feel guilty, letting that fan run all night for no reason other than providing me with consistent whitish noise. Using all that electricity just so I can sleep! I came to this hotel to sleep and all I care about is a down pillow, a fan that stays on all the time, free WiFi, a comfy mattress and all-in-one shampoo/conditioner for the morning. Oh, and a coffeemaker in the room. It does not have to go on automatically like ours at home. I am willing to get out of bed to turn it on in the morning. I am flexible, and a creature of habit.

They used to say that there are more electric motors in your house than any other device, and I wonder if that is still true. I can hear them turning on and off during the night, defrosting my refrigerator, turning the hard drive in my DVR as it records old movies, blowing cool air through the house, turning off the Christmas tree lights. I know someone who even has his coffee beans ground in his coffeemaker 20 minutes before he wakes up. So many automatic motorized robots working for me, and I do not even think about it. The bathroom vent fan comes on with the light. The attic and computer fans come on when it gets hot. The humidifier comes on when it gets dry outside. I am glad that the garbage disposal stays off until I turn it on!

I like manual things. I like to have control over my machines. I like to know what is going to happen. I like to shift the gears on my motorcycle, to set my own shutter speed in my camera and to adjust the lights the way I want them to be at that moment. I like to pick out what songs I am going to listen to, to choose what files will be archived and when, and to adjust my own volume according to the dynamic range of the material I am listening to, my mood and the ambient noise level. I like to pay my bills when I want to, to water the plants or not and to know what is going to happen, although I said that already.

But all of these things keep happening without me expecting them! My car’s door locks mysteriously for no apparent reason, its gears shift right before I think they should, my operating system decides to update and shut me down when I am racing toward a deadline. Elevators show up before I press the button, the light turns green when I stop at the intersection, coupons are emailed to me right before I might need them (sometimes just after). Then I think, maybe this is all a good thing: There are 20 things that are complicated that I don’t have to worry about. But all of this can seem bizarre. For a long time now, we have lost our time and knowledge to run around and do all of these things ourselves. Slowly but surely, we have added automation to so many aspects of our lives, and like it or not, there is so much good that has come of it. My car runs more efficiently because of variable valve timing, my clothes are cleaner, I am more comfortable, and on and on.

It is automation but not what I expect: my automaxpectations. As an audiovisual professional, I extrapolate these ideas and wonder if I am driving my clients crazy with unexpected things from their systems. What do they think is going to happen when they push a button or when they plug in a computer? In their office, their IT pros have installed software to let their laptops automatically display wirelessly in their conference room. When they get to their client’s conference room, will the same thing happen? Their system is designed with energy management features: Do they think something is wrong when the display does not come on, even though they are not going to use it? And simple things: Does a red light mean they are muted or not muted?

Their day is shattered by inconsistency, bewilderment and embarrassment, and it is not their fault. Things just did not do what they thought they would. Their automaxpectations disappointed them. I can prepare them for this system, but they are thinking about that other system. Yikes!

So I flash forward a few years, and now things are even more complicated. We AV/IT people are into smart building integration, even mastering the CSI Division 25 definitions for automation. Sustainability is so woven into our way of doing things that it is in the International green Construction Code (IgCC). Our clients expect “simply elegant,” and “intuitively obvious,” and this is what we think we are providing but it is not what they expect. Is help on the way?

Well, those of us who have been in AV for any length of time know that help is never on the way. We must help ourselves. I tip my hat to the manufacturers that have helped themselves by collaborating and creating very useful tools such as HDMI and HDBaseT, and AVB and UCC, which are the biggest steps toward foolproofing AV as there ever have been.

But once again, I feel we are in yet another transition. This vast landscape of proprietary automation schema is such a “wild west” right now that I look toward the next plateau. I know it lies in artificial intelligence, and the sooner we get there, the better. Things are looking up with this: Witness the recent accomplishment of a supercomputer that officially passed the “Turing Test.” This is the milestone that the British mathematician Alan Turing claimed would be the defining event for machine intelligence: that a computer would be capable of convincing a group of humans that it, too, was human.

That’s what I want for my clients’ next AV control systems. I don’t want them to know what buttons to push, how things are routed, what app they should have installed. I just want them to talk to the system and tell it what they want to do and the system will figure out how to do it. “I’m here for my weekly web conference, HAL. Make it happen!”

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