The Case of the Missing QR Code

Or, Why Intelligence will always be Superior if it’s not called Artificial

There’s a reason they call intelligence artificial, or AI. If you have ever looked up the word, “artificial” you might be able to figure out why. Or, just read this story and you’ll see why.

All we wanted was some 1/8” rubber or foam insulation to put between our induction cooktop and the counter that was never put in when initially installed. The lack of insulation caused the stovetop to move at will, and also allowed the occasional cooking spill to drip into the cabinet below.

We eventually called the dealer who immediately said he would take care of it. He pilfered a roll of the insulation (see the photo on the right) from another unit (not our brand), and when he realized that one wouldn’t be long enough, grabbed some from another unit he had “laying around.” Both are shown in the photo as we received them.

When we drove to the dealer to pick up this “solution,” we quickly confirmed they would not work, but thanked him for his efforts anyway. We measured one of the cooktops in our brand he had on display and he said, “That’s why I gave you this other stuff. I knew this one wouldn’t be enough to go around the cooktop.”

“But there are two different sizes,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “That’s true. But that’s all I got.”

He’s a nice guy, and he tried. But it didn’t solve our problem. We thanked him and left.

We ran over to Home Depot where there is always a solution.

We stopped the first person in an HD apron and showed him the rolled-up roll and asked, “We’re looking for something like this…a foam roll that’s self-sticking.”

He looked confused as he took it and examined it carefully, turning it round and round. I repeated what we were looking for. He mumbled something and started walking away with the roll.

We followed him. He walked five yards to the exit, where another HD person was monitoring the self-checkouts. He started talking to her in a foreign language we didn’t understand. She replied in the same language. He took out his scanning gun and started aiming at the sample and firing it. He kept firing it, turning it this way and that. But nothing was happening, of course. It was just a roll of self-sticking foam. There was no code to which the gun could relate.

Then, he kept looking at his hand-held scanner as if something was wrong, and then satisfied, tried it again, and again. He tried over and over as he and the other HD person conversed in the foreign language. Irritation on both of their parts was growing.

And mine.

I grabbed the sample from his hand quickly, and said with authority, “We’ll take it from here. That’s not going to work. There’s no QR code on this[1].”

He didn’t understand what I was saying. The other HD person had a slight smile on her face.

I normally don’t like to exit an encounter like this abruptly, but this was the exception. I said, “thanks” and walked away, roll in hand. My wife often tells me I engage people too much; I wanted to explain the situation again to the HD people, but thought better of it. Sometimes, just changing your coordinates will work miracles. As in this case.

We went down a few aisles and saw another HD person stocking shelves. He was a small man, intensely focused on what he was doing in the tool area. When intensity like that happens, you feel guilty about interrupting the person, but heck, what’s customer service for?

“Excuse me,” I said as I approached and stood next to him close enough to be a little too close. He kept working never looking at me, but mumbled, “Yes?”

I’ve noticed that when you interrupt many people like this who are doing a task, they don’t want to look at you and stop what they are doing. The superior customer service ones do stop, but this guy looked like he was afraid I was going to ask him a question he wouldn’t be able to answer. Or maybe he was just really focused and counting something.

But, as I also learned years ago, you can’t generalize about human behavior.

“We’re looking for this type of insulation,” I said showing him the sample when he turned his head to me. Without hesitation, he said, “You want the extra small MD,” and he mumbled a number, turned, and started walking away. That’s always the signal to follow the person because they figured out the solution. So we did.

We followed him around to a couple of aisles away, rounded the corner and he said proudly, “You’ll find them here.”

There, on the shelf, was every size you could imagine of what we were looking for. They weren’t exactly the same as the sample, but they were perfect for the purpose we intended on the cooktop.

“What’s your name,” I asked smiling as he began turning to walk back to where we had found him. “You sure know your stuff.”

He stopped, smiled back, and said, “Alberto.”


“Alberto,” he pronounced it again.

“Well, thank you Alberto! We really appreciate this.”

He turned and walked away.

The Danger of AI

Throughout this encounter I was thinking, “Can AI do this?”

Some people will say it can do this and more. If you had a 3D printer, some people would say, it would be able to print an exact match to the roll of insulation you wanted.

Others, like me, noticed the gaps in human understanding around technology.

Watching the guy trying to scan the roll for a QR code that wasn’t there was sad. He probably didn’t know what a QR code was. Training was needed.

The dealer who thought solving the problem with different sizes was silly. He just wanted to “help” but in helping, would have caused more problems to arise. His “solution” reminded me of Gene Kranz in his book Failure is not an Option when Gene was scolded by his boss: “If you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything!” Making the wrong decision in dealing with rockets can cause fatalities. And while this wasn’t “rocket science,” doing things just to do them can often result in more problems than you anticipated. It would have been better for the dealer to have said, “I can’t help you.”

I also learned AI can’t beat human beings: Alberto carried the store in his head. He could make relationships with an object he was shown without a QR code and determine where other objects resided.

Now some will also say, AI can top that speed.

But can it? Would a QR code have worked faster if one existed on that roll?

I’ve seen people struggle for five minutes after reading a QR code and dealing with the results on their hand-held devices that’s producing incorrect information – incorrect judged by their own knowledge of the store and its layout. They keep trying and trying because technology is failing them.

I just tried to register a coffee maker we purchased using the barcode and couldn’t get the iPhone to accept any information once it landed on the website. I eventually did it through the laptop after a few tries.

Communication has always been the key to success – and failure. Whenever we don’t communicate, things go South fast. Sometimes faster than you’d like.

You can read Sun-Zu who knew about communication in warfare. It goes like this:

When the general is weak and without authority; when his orders are not clear and distinct; when there are no fixed duties assigned to officers and men, and the ranks are formed in a slovenly haphazard manner, the result is utter disorganization.

Or as Jim Mattis, the former Secretary of Defense wrote in his book, Call Sign Chaos:

“Digital technologies can falsely encourage remote staffs to believe they possess a God’s-eye view of combat. Digital technologies do not dissipate confusion; the fog of war can actually thicken when misinformation is instantly amplified.”

Which is exactly, when you think about it, what AI can and will do.

Let me know what you think!


[1] More and more you’re seeing QR codes govern behavior, including on TV commercials. Check out our blog Do QR codes work? which includes an Addendum. The verdict is still out.

For more insights follow interlinejim@twitter

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *