26 Stories

26 Stories: Killer App

For once, I finished a story earlier in the week, and this has afforded me the opportunity to post earlier in the day. I use Waze a lot; even on routes that I know just to possibly avoid traffic. I got to thinking, recently, what if a navigation app was good enough to not only reroute around existing traffic, but predict accidents. I grounded it, initially, in the idea of Big Data (something my current day job puts me in close contact with on the regular), but of course, it took a more magical twist. And if it’s not apparent what force or forces would be behind such a app, and why those forces might make it go bad, then I clearly didn’t make it obvious enough.


Killer App
18th Floor

               The phone slid across Gary’s desk with more flourish than it deserved. “This,” Mark said, “is the goddamn future of navigation.”

               “Your phone?”

               “No not…” Mark sighed. “What’s on the phone.”

               Gary looked at it. “Mustard?”

               “What?” Mark yanked the phone back. He rubbed the screen with the bottom of his shirt. “Not the mustard, the app. ‘Wisp.’” He paused.

               “Should I know what that is?”

               “Well, no. It’s in development. Or beta, or something. I dunno. But it’s amazing.”

               “Okay,” Gary said, drawn out. “So why are you showing it to me?”

               “It’s an investment opportunity.”

               “Last time I checked, we were a FinTech company.”

               “Right, but what about diversification?”

               “GPS is a Hell of a leap from lines of credit.”

               “Well,” Mark said, “maybe we can tie it into auto loans?”

               “That’s a stretch.”

               “Just, look… try it out. I can send you the download link, and you can get it and use it yourself.”

               Gary sighed. “What makes it so great, though? I mean, my regular app works really well.”

               Mark smiled, sensing—correctly or otherwise—that the hooks were in. “It predicts traffic problems before they happen.” Again, Mark waited expectantly.

               Gary laughed. “That’s stupid.”

               “It works.”

               “Uh-huh. How?”

               “I don’t know,” Mark whined. “Advanced algorithms or something. Big Data.”

               “You can’t predict idiots driving.”

               “We can predict credit risk within a nearly insignificant margin of error.”

               “What we do is entirely different. You can’t compare the risk of some low-credit score single mom with a history of overdue credit card bills to moronic drivers.”

               “But I’ve seen it work. Just this morning, it diverted me for no apparent reason, and a little later, BAM! The radio reported an accident on my route.”

               “Clearly, you misinterpreted the timing. Radio is late for little things like fender benders.”

               “No, it was that big one, with the bus and the elderly people. They cut into their regular broadcast. Said it happened moments ago and shut down the whole freeway. I was diverted ten minutes before that.” Gary side-eyed Mark. “Yeah, I know, it’s anecdotal, and that’s not how we work. But listen, you know me. I wouldn’t be pushing this if I didn’t think there was something there.”

               “Fine,” Gary said, “send me the link. Maybe if it works even a little, we can buy their data and incorporate it into ours. Cheap data is useful.”

*             *             *             *

               The install was clunky. He had to download it from an amateurish website instead of a proper app store. He’d appropriated a tester phone from QA, so security wasn’t a huge concern, given how isolated those units were. He blindly accepted the usual terms of service and its wall of text that, if anything came of Wisp, legal would pour over anyway. Wisp also asked for access to a number of items on the phone—photos, location, contacts, and a litany of other services—which he accepted impatiently. Finally, Wisp launched, taking a moment to determine his location before dropping a small blue dot on a dynamically generating map.

               The first example of its full capability was, perhaps, the most impressive. Three days of using Wisp had proven useful, but nothing terribly mind blowing. Diverting around a few hazards here and there, as expected. It wasn’t until the accident with the fuel tanker that he thought that Wisp might be extraordinary.

               In an effort to give it a proper chance, he had decided to follow Wisp’s navigation even if it seemed unnecessary. When it told him to exit the freeway, even though he saw nothing but clear road for miles, he did. He was cursing the application as he sat at a red light on the feeder road while traffic roared by on the highway when the tanker raced by in the lanes he’d just been in, blaring its horn. He watched, incredulous, as seconds later and further down the road—likely right at the spot he would have been in had he stayed on the main lanes—it hit something and exploded in a fireball that lit the early morning sky.

               When the news reported the number of casualties, anecdotal evidence be damned, Gary was ready to personally fund Wisp if he had to, but he didn’t think he would. Not getting in on Wisp while it was some guy’s garage project would be mind-blowingly stupid. He didn’t understand what it was doing under the hood. Whoever wrote the algorithm had to be a bonafide data genius. Even if Wisp disintegrated into vaporware, he could hire the developer, move his department ahead by leaps and bounds, and be looking at a VP position for sure. Maybe even C-level.

               Two days later, when a “please review this app” notification popped up, he dismissed it without thinking. When an email arrived in the throw-away email inbox he’d register his Wisp account with, he didn’t even read it before deleting it. Neither of those casual dismissals crossed his mind until Mark ended up in the hospital after his accident.

*             *             *             *

               The head-on collision left Mark comatose, likely brain-dead, and—if he lived past the first 48 hours—maybe he’d live the rest of his life as a vegetable. Gary gave a solemn meeting at work to break the news to the team. A card was passed around for Mark’s soon-to-be-widow and a small cash collection was gathered. Mark’s personal items had been collected at the hospital, and his own QA phone, functional but with a spider-web pattern of cracks, had been dutifully returned to the office.

               That night, in an empty office, Gary fumbled with Mark’s borrowed phone. He hadn’t disliked Mark, but he hadn’t liked him, either. If he’d quit that morning instead, Gary would feel about the same. The best he could muster was a cold feeling of absence. These things happened, and life had to go on.

               He turned the phone on, thumbed in the default QA password, and was presented with Wisp’s map, showing the phone’s current location. It took Gary a second to realize that Mark was probably using it when the accident happened. Well, he thought, so much for Wisp’s brilliant algorithm. There was no way to spin this with investors, so that great plan was out of the question, as was hiring a brilliant data guy to pump up Gary’s career. The data might still be worth a purchase, though, and it had been working for him so far, so there might still be something salvageable. However, it wasn’t worth expending any major investment effort at this point. All it would take would be one accident on Wisp, and the lawsuits would come pouring in.

               The phone dinged as a notification window popped up. Gary almost dismissed it like he had all the Wisp notifications on his own tester phone, then stopped. The bright red triangle and exclamation mark caught his eye. “Terms of Service violation” he mumbled to himself. “Wisp will not work as intended until ToS compliance is detected.” Gary had blindly agreed to the ToS himself and found himself wondering what Mark had violated. Wondering if there was hope for this app yet (though an aggressive ToS that disabled functionality of a navigation app would have to be taken out… too many legal issues, especially if it somehow tied into Mark’s accident), he tapped on the “More” link provided in the window. The wall of text reappeared and scrolled down to what Gary assumed was the relevant section.

               “User must provide a review and a donation to developer’s Patreon at www.patreon.com/TirNaNogDev,” he recited. It was a bit aggressive for a beta application, sure, but he kind of understood. Reviews made or broke new apps, and Patreon donations could fund years of development, especially if this wasn’t anything other than one developer in his or her spare time.

               Intrigued, he withdrew his own tester phone, logged into the app, and navigated to the independent application store page. While he wasn’t yet ready to make a donation, he could throw down on a decent review. Four stars, at least, with the caveat that the ToS was too forward and required some tweaking.

               There, he thought. That should keep it working.

*             *             *             *

               It didn’t.

               His first near accident came completely out of the blue. Like the initial demonstration of the app’s prescience, he had seen nothing but clear freeway ahead. Wisp hadn’t suggested an exit, so he’d stayed on the main lanes dutifully. It was only a freak chance that he’d looked up from his own phone, about to respond to an email regarding one of the company’s latest initiatives, when he saw the sports car racing up behind him. He swerved to the shoulder moments before the car would have plowed into him, slamming him into the eighteen-wheeler and likely killing him in the process. The police reports had confirmed that the sports car driver had, in fact, been brutally annihilated.  

               When he managed to keep from swerving into an errant motorcyclist who moments later caused a ten-car pile-up, he started to think that not only was the app not applying whatever accident-avoiding logic it used, but that it might be using the antithesis of said code to try to direct him into an accident. At that point, he did what any sane person would do; he returned the phone to the QA department to be wiped and went back to his old standby navigation option. His days of considering making a mint off of Wisp had come to and end.

*             *             *             *

               Which is how he found himself on that chilly January day, in his car and following his regular navigation program on the way to work, when an unexpected notification chimed. He looked down, stuck bumper-to-bumper and in no danger of any manner of high-speed, lethal accident, and saw that Wisp was flashing him a ToS violation notification.

               “The Hell,” he said to no one but himself. “I didn’t even install you on this phone, so why are you-” A second notification popped up, informing him that he could still make a Patreon donation to meet the app’s ToS.

               “Okay,” he said. “No. I’m not going to bother donating to an app that I’m not even using, so fuck off.” He stabbed his finger at the “Don’t Show Me This Again” link, but somehow managed to flick the “Donate!” link instead.

               “Ugh,” he replied. “Goddamn it.” He backed out of the donation page and felt like he’d made it back to his regular navigation’s screen. With a shake of his head, he tried to dismiss his experience, vowing to find out what part of the application had sunk its claws into his personal phone.

               A few moments later, his own navigation app told him to exit the freeway, citing a new incident a few miles down from him. He did so, happy to be following the directions of a much more established program instead of some malware (as he now assumed that Wisp was). He diverted onto a side street and started to wind through an unfamiliar network of roads. Within short order, the neighborhood that he drove though was clearly not the kind of place he wanted to pilot his BMW through. As if to confirm this, he found himself behind a low-rider Cadillac at a stop sign that seemed to be in no hurry to go anywhere. Without thinking, Gary tapped on his horn, hoping to prompt the Caddy into moving.

               The four gentlemen who exited the Caddy seemed less interested in moving than they were in confronting Gary. Regardless of their intention, Gary jammed the gas, tearing off around the car and it’s exited occupants without giving it a second thought.

               At that point, perhaps irrationally though he had the sneaking suspicion not, he decided to ignore his own navigation app and just follow whatever streets the map displayed without consideration for the routing system.

               When he almost drove head-first into a sinkhole that would have swallowed his car, he grabbed his phone from its dashboard mouth and threw it out the window. He’d driven for years before GPS was common in everyone’s pocket, so why not now?

               When he got back on a completely different freeway, traveling in the opposite direction of his office, he allowed himself to take a breather. He wasn’t even heading toward his original destination, so how could any navigation system possibly predict what was going on with his route? He was now, in a way that was completely antithesis to his profession of assigning risk to potential customers, unpredictable.

*             *             *             *

               The truck driver who had been using Wisp swore before a judge and jury that he hadn’t been impaired when he’d slammed into the BMW on the highway that day, instantly killing the driver. He had merely been following the directions on his navigation system that he had not only downloaded but given a positive review and a Patreon donation to, given how well it had worked in routing him through the most efficient routes on his delivery. He felt terrible, for sure, that a man had died in the accident, but it wasn’t like he hadn’t seen a fair share of distracted drivers in his career, and he managed to get a simple dismissal of his case by pointing out that in fifteen years of driving, this was the first accident he’d been involved in. 

               Yes, the app he’d used was new, but it hadn’t steered him wrong before then, and he didn’t imagine that he would have any problems with Shamrock Shipping’s latest early adoption of Wisp in the future.

               These things, he’d reasoned, were just part of the hazard of travel.


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