Carl’s Junior

In addition to its registers, OmniBro also makes fast-food vending machines. The one we see in the film is free-standing kiosk with five main panels, one for each of the angry star’s severed arms. A nice touch that flies by in the edit is that the roof of the kiosk is a giant star, but one of the arms has broken and fallen onto a car. Its owners have clearly just abandoned it, and things have been like this long enough for the car to rust.

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A description

Each panel in the kiosk has:

  • A small screen and two speakers just above eye level
  • Two protruding, horizontal slots of unknown purpose
  • A metallic nozzle
  • A red laser barcode scanner
  • A 3×4 panel of icons (similar in style to what’s seen in the St. God’s interfaces) in the lower left. Sadly we don’t see these buttons in use.

But for the sake of completeness, the icons are, in western reading order:

  • No money, do not enter symbol, question
  • Taco, plus, fries
  • Burger, pizza, sundae
  • Asterisk, up-down, eye

The bottom has an illuminated dispenser port.

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In use

Joe approaches the kiosk and, hungry, watches to figure out how people get food. He hears a transaction in progress, with the kiosk telling the customer, “Enjoy your EXTRA BIG ASS FRIES.” She complains, saying, “You didn’t give me no fries. I got an empty box.”

She reaches inside the food port to see if it just got stuck, and tinto the take-out port and fishes inside to see if it just got stuck. The kiosk asks her, “Would you like another EXTRA BIG ASS FRIES?” She replies loudly into the speaker, “I said I didn’t get any.” The kiosk ignores her and continues, “Your account has been charged. Your balance is zero. Please come back when you afford to make a purchase.” The screen shows her balance as a big dollar sign with a crossout circle over it.

Frustrated, she bangs the panel, and a warning screen pops up, reading, “WARNING: Carl’s Junior frowns upon vandalism.”

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She hits it again, saying, “Come on! My kids’re starving!” (Way to take it super dark, there, Judge.) Another screen reads, “Please step back.”

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A mist sprays from the panel into her face as the voice says, “This should help you calm down. Please come back when you can afford to make a purchase! Your kids are starving. Carl’s Junior believes no child should go hungry. You are an unfit mother. Your children will be placed in the custody of Carl’s Junior.”

She stumbles away, and the kiosk wraps up the whole interaction with the tagline, “Carl’s Junior: Fuck you. I’m eating!” (This treatment of brands, it should be noted, is why the film never got broad release. See the New York Times article, or, if you can’t get past the paywall, the Mental Floss listicle, number seven.)

Joe approaches the kiosk and sticks a hand up the port. The kiosk recognizes the newcomer and says, “Welcome to Carl’s Junior. Would you like to try our EXTRA BIG ASS TACO, now with more MOLECULES?” Then the cops arrive to arrest the mom.

***

Critique

Now, I don’t think Judge is saying that automation is stupid. (There are few automated technologies in the film that work just fine.) I think he’s noting that poorly designed—and inhumanely designed—systems are stupid. It’s a reminder for all of us to consider the use cases where things go awry, and design for graceful degradation. (Noting the horrible pun so implied.) If we don’t, people can lose money. People can go hungry. The design matters.

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Spoiler alert: If you’re worried about the mom, the police arrive in the next beat and arrest him , so at least she’s not arrested.

I have questions

The interface inputs raise a lot of questions that are just unanswerable. Are there only four things on the menu? Why are they distributed amongst other categories of icons? Is “plus” the only customization? Does that mean another of the same thing I just ordered, or a larger size? What have I ordered already? How much is my current total? Do I have enough to pay for what I have ordered? There all sorts of purchase path best practice standards being violated or unaddressed by the scene. Of course. It’s not a demo. A lot of sci-fi scenes involve technology breaking down.

Graceful degradation

Just to make sure I’m covering the bases, here, let me note what I hope is obvious. No automation system/narrow AI is perfect. Designers and product owners must presume that there will be times when the system fails—and the system itself does not know about it. The kiosk thinks it has delivered EXTRA BIG ASS FRIES, but it’s wrong. It’s delivered an empty box. It still charged her, so it’s robbed her.

We should always be testing, finding, and repairing these failure points in the things we help make. But we should also design an easy recourse for when the automation fails and doesn’t know. This could be a human attendant (or even a button that connects to a remote human operator who could check the video feed) to see that the woman is telling the truth, mark that panel as broken and use overrides to get her EXTRA BIG ASS FRIES from one of the functioning panels or refund her money to, I guess, go get a tub of Flaturin instead? (The terrible nutrition of Idiocracy is yet another layer for some speculative scifinutrition blog to critique.)

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Again, privacy. Again, respectfulness.

The financial circumstances of a customer are not the business of any other customer. The announcement and unmistakable graphic could be an embarrassment. Adding the disingenuous 🙁 emoji when it was the damned machine’s fault only adds insult to injury. We have to make sure and not get cute when users are faced with genuine problems.

Benefit of the doubt

Anther layer of the stupid here is that OmniBro has the sensors to detect frustrated customers. (Maybe it’s a motion sensor in the panel or dispense port. Possibly emotion detectors in the voice input.) But what it does with that information is revolting. Instead of presuming that the machine has made some irritating mistake, it presumes a hostile customer, and not only gasses her into a stupor while it calls the cops, it is somehow granted the authority to take her children as indentured servants for the problems it helped cause. If you have a reasonable customer base, it’s better for the customer experience, for the brand, and the society in which it operates to give the customers the benefit of the doubt rather than the presumption of guilt.

Prevention > remedy

Another failure of the kiosk is that it discovers that she has no money only after it believes it has dispensed EXTRA BIG ASS FRIES. As we see elsewhere in the film, the OmniBro scanners work accurately at a huge distance even while the user is moving along at car speeds. It should be able to read customers in advance to know that they have no ability to pay for food. It should prevent problems rather than try (and, as it does here, fail) to remedy them. At the most self-serving level, this helps avoid the potential loss or theft of food.

At a collective level, a humane society would still find some way to not let her starve. Maybe it could automatically deduct from a basic income. Maybe it could provide information on where a free meal is available. Maybe it could just give her the food and assign a caseworker to help her out. But the citizens of Idiocracy abide a system where, instead, children can be taken away from their mothers and turned into indentured servants because of a kiosk error. It’s one thing for the corporations and politicians to be idiots. It’s another for all the citizens to be complicit in that, too.

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Fighting American Idiocracy

Since we’re on the topic of separating families: Since the fascist, racist “zero-tolerance” policy was enacted as a desperate attempt to do something in light of his failed and ridiculous border wall promise, around 3000 kids were horrifically and forcibly separated from their families. Most have been reunited, but as of August there were at least 500 children still detained, despite the efforts of many dedicated resisters. The 500 include, according to the WaPo article linked below, 22 kids under 5. I can’t imagine the permanent emotional trauma it would be for them to be ripped from their families. The Trump administration chose to pursue scapegoating to rile a desperate, racist base. The government had no reunification system. The Trump administration ignored Judge Sabraw’s court-ordered deadline to reunite these families. The GOP largely backed him on this. They are monsters. Vote them out. Early voting is open in many states. Do it now so you don’t miss your chance.

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Airport Security

After fleeing the Yakuza in the hotel, Johnny arrives in the Free City of Newark, and has to go through immigration control. This process appears to be entirely automated, starting with an electronic passport reader.

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After that there is a security scanner, which is reminiscent of HAL from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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The green light runs over Johnny from top to bottom. Continue reading

Yellow circles everywhere

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Korben (and his poor neighbor) aren’t the only ones to deal with the yellow circles. Apparently they appear everywhere.

When Right Arm fails to convince the counter staff for Fhloston Paradise that he is Korben Dallas. Knowing that he works for a sociopathic killer, he gets upset. As the doors to gate 18 close behind her, the ticket taker smiles and says, “Sorry, sir, boarding is finished!” and the platform on which she stands lowers her out of sight. At the same time a pane of glass with the familiar two yellow circles rises up. In his frustration, Right Arm shouts, “I don’t believe this!” and pounds the glass(?) around the booth.

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Instantly, a whooping warning is heard, and three columns of computer-controlled guns drop from the ceiling, clacking into place as if they were being armed. Two columns are behind him and one directly in front, each with two guns, pointing a total of six automatic weapons at him. Red LEDs blink on the column in front near a camera and a voice sternly warns him, “This is not an exercise. This is a police control. Put your hands in the yellow circles…”

The scene is played for laughs, as an example of an inappropriately harsh reaction to an expression of frustration. But the design of the system is worth noting. The compliance technique is designed to be easy to communicate and comprehend. The recorded voice could have said something like “stand in a spread-eagle position against the glass” but that is too wordy and leaves lots to interpretation. Giving the user very basic signals, i.e. yellow circles, and a very unambiguous task, i.e. putting your hands in the circles, is as clear as it could be. (Though I’m not sure what would happen if you were someone with only one hand, or no hands, or a prosthetic hand.)

The red lights, stern recorded audio, mechanical sounds, and whooping sound all let Right Arm know the gravity of the situation he’s in. Even the fact that they drop and swivel toward him give him the clear signal that if he tried to run, these weapons could track him. The sound appears behind him first, causing him to swivel, where he’s met with the four menacing barrels. He is first disoriented and then cowed.

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Sure, I’d really hate to live in such an oppressive police state where expressing frustration in public is met with possible death from a robot, but looking at it purely from the perspective of the signals and instructions, it’s well done.

Apartment Lockdown

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Zorg issues orders to the police to arrest Korben Dallas. A squad of 8 officers arrive to his apartment block. They know what apartment number he’s supposed to be in, but Korben’s number has been removed by Cornelius, and the neighbor has blacked his out.

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To authorize the lockdown, the squad leader opens a police box mounted on the wall in the hallway by placing the top edge of a transparent warrant into a slot on its side. The box verifies the warrant and slides open. The squad leader presses a red button within.

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During lockdown a klaxon sounds, red beacon lights descend from the hallway ceiling, and a loud, clear voiceover is heard in the hallway and in the apartments themselves.

THIS IS A POLICE PATROL. THIS IS NOT AN EXERCISE…THIS IS A POLICE PATROL. THIS IS NOT AN EXERCISE. CAN YOU PLEASE SPREAD YOUR LEGS AND PLACE YOUR HANDS IN THE YELLOW CIRCLES.

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The circles in question are painted at chest height on the walls inside of each apartment, a little wider than shoulder width. There is a small intercom interface mounted in the wall directly between the yellow circles. The police use different interfaces for peering inside apartments and this intercom for communicating with citizens, but these will be discussed separately in the next post.

Analysis

There are a few sets of users for this particular set of interfaces: The police, Zorg, and Korben. To evaluate the system, we need to look at each user independently.

  1. For the police, this interface seems to work well. Since the lockdown is part of the infrastructure, they don’t have to bring anything but their standard gear and the warrant. They save energy and the tedium of alerting the citizens and issuing standard compliance instructions. In a fully networked world, you might think to simply have him or her authorize themselves using biometrics, but in keeping with the principles of multifactor authentication, you might require the officer to carry something anyway. Since you’d want a physical warrant for a poor or luddite citizen to be able to see and verify, it’s going to be there, might as well use it.
  2. For Zorg and issuing authorities like him, he kind-of wants to minimize danger to his people and certainly his equipment, which this helps do. He also wants to cover his ass from citizen lawsuits, and having the traceability of the warrant-scan means he will have a record that due process has been followed. As we’ll see tomorrow, ultimately he doesn’t get what he needs, but as far as this lockdown interface, it seems like it would work just fine.
  3. For the citizen Korben, the interface provides a clear signal and easy-to-follow instructions, so the proximal part “works.” What doesn’t work is that the whole system is horribly demeaning, authoritarian, and—fully risking Godwin’s Law, here—fascist.

Security is almost always at odds with usability, and this interface proves no different. To improve the experience for the good citizen, you might want to provide some warning, some ability to finish what they’re doing, or some less demeaning way to show that they are cooperating. But any concessions made for the good citizens will be taken advantage of by the bad ones, and so I don’t know that design can really fix that tension.

P.S. As of this writing my Minority Report review is not posted, but readers interested to compare and contrast a similar scene done with more seriousness some 5 years later should check it out.