The three laws of traffic lights.

Never worry about theory as long as the machinery does what it’s supposed to do. -Robert A. Heinlein

As you know I enjoy robotics and love to read science fiction. Isaac Asimov created the three laws of robotics that is still widely quoted. I thought of this while I was sitting at a traffic light the other day. The traffic light for some reason changed from green to red just in time for me to have no chance of making the yellow. I was thinking about robotics and how with today’s technology these traffic control devices must be really sophisticated. There was no cross traffic, it seemed to me that the light had no reason to change other than to cause me to stop and wait. I began to think about the programing of these lights and how they are sequenced. It was as if the light was purposely programed to interrupt traffic flow. The horrible truth about the programing of these computers became suddenly clear. Ironically the truth was right there all along with in what most people call them. It never occurred to me why people call a traffic light a ‘Stop light’ rather than a ‘Go light’. After the light finally turned green I drove on and thought about how I would program the system if my goal was not to allow people to drive, but to inhibit their movement.

Back to Isaac Asimov, in order to create a complicated program you usually start with some simple rules….
Law #1: A traffic light must change to stop the greatest number of cars.
Law #2: A traffic light must make people wait the maximum amount of time before changing regardless of traffic.
Law #3: This time limit can be shortened to maximize the effect of rule #1.

If you watch carefully you can see these simple rules in action. For example: You approach a green light at an empty intersection. The light changes to red just in time to stop you. You sit there wondering why the light won’t turn green, when there is no traffic. Then you see out of the corner of your eye a large amount of cars approaching to cross the intersection in front of you. Only then does the light change. It held you there as long as possible, and then only changed when there was an opportunity to stop a larger group of cars. The logic is irrefutable. Cold and calculating, these traffic lights are indeed stop lights. Their function is to prevent you from getting from point A to point B within certain program limits. They are insidiously programed to keep you from moving; however they are constrained by a time limit. This is included because if the light never changes, people would not obey their rule. I believe that the time limit is adjusted to maximize this delay depending upon the temperament of the average driver and the availability of police to enforce traffic laws. That is why rural lights seem to work better than city lights. At first glance it seems counter intuitive. The big city can afford more intelligent computers and traffic cameras, but if you think about the three laws and the risk of people just running the light because there are no police around, it all becomes clear.

Understanding something sometimes does not make it less evil. I resent stop lights even more now that I have been enlightened to their true nature.

Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves. ~Carl Jung


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