Tag Archives: Asimov

How overly “intelligent” software can embarrass you

Yesterday I got an email telling me that I was invited to an acquaintance's birthday party, together with some 30-odd people, most of which I didn't know. The email contained an .ics invitation as an attachment, one of these little files created by, for example, MS Outlook or Apple iCal. The .ics file carries information on a calendar entry in it, like time, location, sender, attendees etc.

I wanted to add the event to my Apple iCal calender, so I clicked on its underlined name. The event got added alright, but to the wrong calendar – one of my deprecated work calendars. So I deleted the entry from the calendar and tried something different: This time I dragged the .ics file from the Apple Mail email body right onto my private calendar in iCal. The event appeared in the right color, indicating that it had been added to the correct calendar, but … I noticed some interesting activity in my Apple Mail client! iCal had started to send out updated invitations to all the original party invitees – in my name! I quickly deleted the event from my calendar, only to be asked if I wanted to send out some explanation to the invitees. Confirmed that (I was a bit nervous by that time) and had to close ~30 draft emails; nevertheless, my email client kept sending out message after message until I finally disconnected the WiFi network to make it stop. By that time, at least 16 invitations and updated invitations had been sent out.

The shame of it! I had spammed a number of people, most of which I didn't even know, with updates to a party I had only indirectly been invited to, and that happened to me, who I consider to be sufficiently tech-savvy, with one my favorite tools, Apple Mail, on my favorite OS, Mac OS X 10.5. I sent out an apologizing email to the party organizer and later today another one to all the invitees. My apps' misbehavior had caused shame for me and irritation in my social network, and in the end the blame would land squarely on me.

Someone at Apple obviously had tried to make something super-simple but somehow got it wrong. Why am I made the owner of an event when I drag it to my calendar, and how can my email app start sending out messages without asking me first? This reminds me too strongly of Plaxo, a contact management tool that makes it super-easy to stay up-to-date with your contacts' address data, because it syncs all the changes in the background, but that can also result in your sending out messages to all the entries in your address book. The infamous AOL client had a similar functionality that I invoked at least once accidentally while working at AOL.

Brings to mind Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics (1942), and right at number one, they read:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Please, keep this in mind when designing applications – protect people from overly clever actions of applications, and think about possible negative consequences of your apps' behavior.