An aging outhouse on the pier extending out from the fire station that’s purportedly the only public toilet in Tenakee Springs in August of 2022. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)

An aging outhouse on the pier extending out from the fire station that’s purportedly the only public toilet in Tenakee Springs in August of 2022. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)

Gimme a Smile: Is it artificial intelligence or just automatic?

Our nation is obsessed with AI these days. Artificial intelligence is writing our school essays (don’t tell the teacher), animating our favorite movies, and feeding us news bites so we know what’s going on in the world. How could that be a problem?

Well…

If AI works about as well as the non-intelligent automated devices in our lives, we are in big trouble. You only have to take a visit to a public restroom to see how well automation works when it really counts.

Say you need to wash your hands in a public restroom. You hold your hands under the faucet, wave them around like you’re getting ready to conduct Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and wait for the magic water to appear. Nothing. You wave your hands up and down, sideways, and around in circles like you’re about to tackle a punching bag, which is precisely how you feel at this moment. Finally, the water flows out, allowing you to wet your hands before reaching out to the soap dispenser.

You need to be wary when it comes to the soap, for fear of looking like a fool. Some soap dispensers are automated with a sensor and some are the old-fashioned manual pump kind. If you don’t know what you’re dealing with, you might stand for hours, minutes even, waving your hand under a dispenser that is never, ever going to squirt out any soap automatically. Then the person next to you tips you off that you’re contending with a manual soap dispenser. Yeah, you don’t even know how to lather up in this world. But if it is automatic, where do you position your hands so the soap squirts into your palm instead of onto your face or all over the counter? Your chances of making a colossal mess are about 50-50 at this point.

Finally, you succeed in lathering up. Back to the faucet, which of course has stopped running by now. You hold your hands in front of the sensor, scrubbing them over and over like Lady Macbeth, but all you can muster is a 10-second stream of water. Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat, over and over until the soap is finally gone from your hands.

Your ordeal is almost over. You just need to dry off.

Again, there are various options. Maybe there’s a hand dryer with a flow so strong that it can literally blow your skin right off your bones if you’re not careful. Or there might be an automatic paper towel dispenser, where you have to figure out whether to wave your hands in front of or underneath the dispenser. Maybe if you bow down to it with reverence, a paper towel will magically appear. But the dispenser might be empty. No amount of genuflecting will entice an empty paper towel dispenser to grant you a paper towel. It’s almost enough to trigger nostalgia for the olden days of the cloth towel on a continuous loop, which you grabbed with both hands to reveal a clean stretch of fabric. Almost.

When all else fails, just wipe your hands on your pants and be done with it.

These trials with automatic faucets and blow dryers are nothing compared to the ordeal of the automatically flushing toilets. While it takes a herculean effort to activate the faucets in the sinks, the toilets flush at the slightest movement in front of their sensors. There’s nothing worse than having the toilet flush when you’re still sitting on it. But take heart, you can conquer the toilet sensors. Take a tip from me — this is not a joke. All you need to do is carry a sticky-note pad with you. Stick a note over the sensor, and then you can take your time to do your business, and the toilet is none the wiser. For all it knows, you’re still sitting there, even after you’re all finished. This trick is especially useful for young children who nurture a very real fear that they will get flushed down the toilet, especially when it seems to have a mind of its own.

I think that’s the fear we all have when it comes to AI — that it will have a mind of its own. But don’t despair. We’re not doomed to getting flushed down the toilet. Human ingenuity will prevail. We can take on the artificial world, one sticky note at a time.

• Peggy McKee Barnhill is a wife, mother, and author who writes cozy mysteries under the pen name “Greta McKennan.” She likes to look at the bright side of life.

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