Why the Department of Transportation Has Made Me an AI Agnostic

This actually happened.

I recently wrote an article about some high tech infrastructure options that I feel fairly strongly about. My target for this was the “Fast Lane” blog on the Department of Transportation website. After finishing the article, I sent it off to them with the following note:

 Customer By Web Form 05/18/2015 01:18 PM
I’ve written an article for Fast Lane regarding possible future commutes. It brings together technologies such as driver-less cars, solar powered roads capable of charging electric cars, and environmentally sound commuter practices. I’m hoping you’d be willing to run it as a way to wet the appetites of concerned citizens and policy makers alike as we look to tomorrow’s infrastructure.

Unsurprisingly, the initial response I received (within seconds) was automated. Being automated it simply lifted key words out of the initial message to give me search results for materials it thought were related. These included such things as information on Toyota recalls, fuel economy statistics, and so forth. This had nothing to do with my reason for contacting them, but it is a fairly standard practice for larger organizations, so I expected it. I chose to wait and see if I would get anything further, this time from a non-automated process directly addressing my article.

Instead, what I got was this:

 Response Via Email (US DOT Reference Service) 05/18/2015 04:05 PM
Dear Jamie-
Please visit the web page posted at:


Reference Services
National Transportation Library
Bureau of Transportation Statistics
Office of the Secretary for Research
U.S. Department of Transportation

Okay. http://www.its.dot.gov/ is actually fairly relevant to the topic. It is a page that links to information about future transportation infrastructure and smart tech. You have things on self-driving cars, smart cars, green initiatives… but nothing on actual solar power generating roads and their interrelationship with electric cars and future infrastructure.

Since this did not address the article, let alone give me a cut and dried yes or no on publishing it to the blog, I followed up.

 Customer By Email 05/18/2015 04:21 PM
So does this mean you are not interested in publishing my article to Fast Lane?

At this point I was already fairly convinced that the article was not going to be published. I just wanted clarification so that I could feel confident about looking somewhere else for this.

Here’s the response I received:

 Response Via Email (US DOT Reference Service) 05/19/2015 12:02 PM
Can you clarify what you mean by “wet the appetites” ?  Does this have something to do with water?
Also – “FastLane” is an internal publication of the Office of the Secretary.


Reference Services
National Transportation Library
Bureau of Transportation Statistics
Office of the Secretary for Research
U.S. Department of Transportation

At this point I am pretty certain that I am talking to some sort of robot. I can find no way, whatsoever, to convince myself a human can jump from the oh so common phrase “wet the appetite” to somehow assuming my article discussing electric cars and solar power roads has something to do with water.

Seriously, if this represents the Federal Government’s capabilities in terms of Artificial Intelligence, I will never be able to watch Terminator again without laughing myself senseless. Skynet will be far too busy getting confused by phrases like “High as a kite” and “raining cats and dogs” to “jump the gun” and try “putting us on ice”.

I’m sure that there will be future updates to this, because, seriously, you just can’t write fiction like this.


So I poked at the DOT on Twitter as part of this, and they’ve been quite responsive. I don’t know who runs their twitter, but it’s been a good conversation. Props!

Twitter - Notifications.clipular

UPDATE to the update.

I have to give big props to the folk at @USDOT on twitter. I’m not going to show the final end of our discussion, but they were very helpful in providing an e-mail I could use to contact their social media folk. There are no guarantees that anything will come of my sending the article that way, but the fact they took the time to do this speaks volumes. Thanks!


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