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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Garden Center

In the center of the kitchen, mounted to the ceiling, is a “Garden Center.” Out of use, it retracts out of reach, but anyone in the family can say “Fruit, please” and the Garden Center drops down to allow fresh grapes to be plucked right off the vine. When done, Marty Jr. tells it to “retract” with a thump on it, and it retracts back up to its resting place near the ceiling.

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This is wonderful. Responds to many types of inputs and keeps healthy, fresh fruit available to the family at any time.

Black & Decker Hydrator

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Lorraine prepares the family a pizza using a hydrator. She opens a sealed foil package, branded “Pizza Hut,” and removes a tiny puck of a pizza, placing it in the center of a large pizza tray. She inserts the tray into a “hydrator” oven and closes the hinged front door. A small green light illuminates on its panel. She puts her mouth close to the device and instructs it to, “Hydrate level 4, please.” A red light illuminates as a bubbling sound is heard for a few seconds. Then a timer bell rings, and both lights extinguish. Lorraine removes a full-sized and fully-cooked pizza from the oven.

It could be improved by not having her have to remember and enter the level of hydration. There might be an argument that this helps the hydrator feel like they’re doing enough effort, like the legendary Betty Crocker egg story. While snopes tells us that the usual version of this is poppycock, but also references Ernest Dichter’s research in which yes, the first generation of homemakers using instant cake mixes felt that a preparation that was too easy was too indulgent. So, perhaps the hydrator is first generation, and later generations will be able to detect the hydration needed from the packaging.  

Sci-Fi Purple Drank

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After Alphy sings to wake her from her 154-hour sleep, Barbarella turns to one of a pair of transparent plastic domes beside her bed. As Alphy announces that she should “prepare to insert nourishment,”” a tall cylindrical glass, filled with a purple fluid, rises from a circular recession. All Barbarella has to do is lift the hinged dome, grab the glass, and drink. When she’s done she puts the glass back into the plastic dome, and Alphy takes care of the rest.

Sharp-eyed readers may note that there are two sets of rectangular buttons in the dome. Each set as one black, one gray, and one white button. We don’t see these buttons being used.

As an interface, this is about as simple as it gets.

  • Human has need.
  • Agent anticipates need.
  • Agent does what it can to address the need.
  • Agent provides respectful, just-in-time instructions to the human on her part.
  • Human has need satisfied.

Seriously, this bit from 1968 is the future.

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