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Navigating Crowds E-mail
City Life - Blogs & Columns
Written by Mary Higgins
Have you ever seen one of those little robotic floor sweepers? It looks like a tiny UFO that drives around your floor and sweeps up whatever gets in the way. When you first unleash the robo-vac on your place, it has no idea about anything and it knows only to move in straight lines.  If it bumps into something then it changes course and continues again in a straight line until it yet again bumps into something else.

A good one of these machines is supposed to create a map of your floorplan and get used to the location of items…I guess.  This machine essentially works on the premise that it will bump into things and it’s only solution is to wait for the unavoidable and make a course correction afterwards. The Chinese are understandably upset because they have not been properly credited with the development of this machine artificial intelligence that they so obviously created thousands of years ago.  If you change the word “robo-vac” to “ person” then you are left with a pretty good description of crowd navigation in China.  It’s amazing. You would think that being surrounded by over a billion of your fellow countrymen would, over time, necessitate the evolutionary development of some sort of proximity detector. 

Most of us call our proximity detector by their usual names: eyes, ears, touch, and all controlled by the brain but the Chinese seem to have chosen a different evolutionary route.

Navigating crowds is no easy task.  You’re going to bump into someone.  It’s inevitable.  However, when in a very crowded situation (escaping fires and sinking boats, excluded), you do make extra effort to be extremely aware of your surroundings.  You up the dosage of your Spidey-sense and activate the eyes in the back of your head.

Watching the Chinese navigate crowds is more akin to watching popcorn pop or simulations of atomic reactions in super colliders: there is simply no method to the madness.  People will move in straight lines until something gets in their way and even then they won’t move until there is a collision. Very often this is due to someone trying to catch a glimpse of something behind them while they continue to move forward.  Why look ahead while walking when you can look backwards?

So, my suggestion for all of you (while the Chinese V. Robo-Vac navigation patents are being debated by the courts) is to try something radical and new: look and avoid.  If something gets in your way then move.  If there is nowhere to move then stop and wait until you can move.

It is amazing what opening your eyes will do.

Our valuable Editor Mary Higgins has been with us since Tuesday, 24 November 2009.

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