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Rodney Brooks on Pedestrian Interaction, Andrew Ng on Infrastructure, and both on human attitudes

Recently we've seen two essays by people I highly respect in the field of AI and robotics. Their points are worthy of reading, but in spite of my respect, I have some differences of course.

The first essay comes from Andrew Ng, head of AI (and thus the self-driving car project) at Baidu. You will find few who can compete with Andrew when it comes to expertise on AI. (Update: This essay is not recent, but I only came upon it recently.)

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CES News Part 1 -- cars

CES has become the big event for major car makers to show off robocar technology. Most of the north hall, and a giant and valuable parking lot next to it, were devoted to car technology and self-driving demos.

Gallery of CES comments

Earlier I posted about many of the pre-CES announcements and it turns out there were not too many extra events during the show. I went to visit many of the booths and demos and prepared some photo galleries. The first is my gallery on cars. In this gallery, each picture has a caption so you need to page through them to see the actual commentary at the bottom under the photo. Just 3 of many of the photos are in this post.

To the left you see BMW's concept car, which starts to express the idea of an ultimate non-driving machine. Inside you see that the back seat has a bookshelf in it. Chances are you will just use your eReader, but this expresses and important message -- that the car of the future will be more like a living, playing or working space than a transportation space.

Nissan

The main announcement during the show was from Nissan, which outlined their plans and revealed some concept cars you will see in the gallery. The primary demo they showed involved integration of some technology worked on by Nissan's silicon valley lab leader, Maarten Sierhuis in his prior role at NASA. Nissan is located close to NASA Ames (I myself work at Singularity University on the NASA grounds) and did testing there.

Their demo showed an ability to ask a remote control center to assist a car with a situation it doesn't understand. When the car sees something it can't handle, it stops or pulls over, and people in the remote call center can draw a path on their console to tell the car where to go instead. For example, it can be drawn how to get around an obstacle, or take a detour, or obey somebody directing traffic. If the same problem happens again, and it is approved, the next car can use the same path if it remains clear.

I have seen this technology a number of places before, including of course the Mars rovers, and we use something like it at Starship Technologies for our delivery robots. This is the first deployment by a major automaker.

Nissan also committed to deployment in early 2020 as they have before -- but now it's closer.

You can also see Nissan's more unusual concepts, with tiny sensor pods instead of side-view mirrors, and steering wheels that fold up.

Startups

Several startups were present. One is AIMotive, from Hungary. They gave me a demo ride in their test car. They are building a complete software suite, primarily using cameras and radar but also able to use LIDAR. They are working to sell it to automotive OEMs and already work with Volvo on DriveMe. The system uses neural networks for perception, but more traditional coding for path planning and other functions. It wasn't too fond of Las Vegas roads, because the lane markers are not painted there -- lanes are divided only with Bott's Dots. But it was still able to drive by finding the edge of the road. They claim they now have 120 engineers working on self-driving systems in Hungary.

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No, a Tesla didn't predict an accident and brake for it

You may have seen a lot of press around a dashcam video of a car accident in the Netherlands. It shows a Tesla in AutoPilot hitting the brakes around 1.4 seconds before a red car crashes hard into a black SUV that isn't visible from the viewpoint of the dashcam. Many press have reported that the Tesla predicted that the two cars would hit, and because of the imminent accident, it hit the brakes to protect its occupants. (The articles most assuredly were not saying the Tesla predicted the accident that never happened had the Tesla failed to brake, they are talking about predicting the dramatic crash shown in the video.)

The accident is brutal but apparently nobody was hurt.

The press speculation is incorrect. It got some fuel because Elon Musk himself retweeted the report linked to, but Telsa has in fact confirmed the alternate and more probable story which does not involve any prediction of the future accident. In fact, the red car plays little to no role in what took place.

Tesla's autopilot uses radar as a key sensor. One great thing about radar is that it tells you how fast every radar target is going, as well as how far away it is. Radar for cars doesn't tell you very accurately where the target is (roughly it can tell you what lane a target is in.) Radar beams bounce off many things, including the road. That means a radar beam can bounce off the road under a car that is in front of you, and then hit a car in front of it, even if you can't see the car. Because the radar tells you "I see something in your lane 40m ahead going 20mph and something else 30m ahead going 60mph" you know it's two different things.

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On voting, sampling, measurement, elections and surveys

Yesterday's post about the flaws in the so-called "popular vote" certainly triggered some debate (mostly on Facebook.) To clarify matters, I thought I would dive a little deeper about what the two types of Presidential elections in the USA are so different they can't be added together in a way that isn't misleading.

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We don't know who won the US popular vote, decent chance it was Clinton

The common statistic reported after the US election was that Clinton "won the popular vote" by around 3 million votes over Trump. This has caused great rancour over the role of the electoral college and has provided a sort of safety valve against the shock Democrats (and others) faced over the Trump victory.

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DMV pulls out big guns, Uber backs off, Waymo minivans emerge & Honda next?

The California DMV got serious in their battle with Uber and revoked the car registrations for Uber's test vehicles. Uber had declined to register the cars for autonomous testing, using an exemption in that law which I described earlier. The DMV decided to go the next step and pull the more basic licence plate every car has to have if based in California. Uber announced it would take the cars to another state.

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Car NAS for semi-offsite backup

Everybody should have off-site backup of their files. For most people, the biggest threat is fire, but here in California, the most likely disaster you will encounter is an earthquake. Only a small fraction of houses will burn down, but everybody will experience the big earthquake that is sure to come in the next few decades. Of course, fortunately only a modest number of houses will collapse, but many computers will be knocked off desks or have things fall on them.

To deal with this, I've been keeping a copy of my data in my car -- encrypted of course. I park in my driveway, so nothing will fall on the car in a quake, and only a very large fire would have risk of spreading to the car, though it's certainly possible.

The two other options are network backup and truly remote backup. Network backup is great, but doesn't work for people who have many terabytes of storage. I came back from my latest trip with 300gb of new photos, and that would take a very long time to upload if I wanted network storage. In addition, many TB of network storage is somewhat expensive. Truly remote storage is great, but the logistics of visiting it regularly, bringing back disks for update and then taking them back again is too much for household and small business backup. In fact, even being diligent about going down to the car to get out the disk and update is difficult.

A possible answer -- a wireless backup box stored in the car. Today, there are many low-cost linux based NAS boxes and they mostly run on 12 volts. So you could easily make a box that goes into the car, plugs into power (many cars now have 12v jacks in the trunk or other access to that power) and wakes up every so often to see if it is on the home wifi, and triggers a backup sync, ideally in the night.

The terrible power of computer espionage in our world of shame

I have some dark secrets. Some I am not proud of, some that are fine by me but I know would be better kept private. So do you. So does everybody. And the more complex your life, the more "big" things you have done in the world, the bigger your mistakes and other secrets are. It is true for all of us. This is one of the reasons the world needs privacy to work.

Uber's battle in San Francisco

For a few months, Uber has been testing their self-driving prototypes in Pittsburgh, giving rides to willing customers with a safety driver (or two) in the front seat monitoring the drive and ready to take over.

When Uber came to do this in San Francisco, starting this week, it was a good step to study new territory and new customers, but the real wrinkle was they decided not to get autonomous vehicle test permits from the California DMV. Google/Waymo and most others have such permits. Telsa has such permits but claims it never uses them.

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Google car is now Waymo

Google's car project (known as "Chauffeur") really kickstarted the entire robocar revolution, and Google has put in more work, for longer, than anybody. The car was also the first project of what became Google "X" (or just "X" today under Alphabet. Inside X, a lab devoted to big audacious "moonshot" projects that affect the physical world as well as the digital, they have promoted the idea that projects should eventually "graduate," moving from being research to real commercial efforts.

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Therapy session for somebody with real family issues

On the lighter side, the other day I was daydreaming how a conversation about her family might go with a famous character... You'll probably guess who fairly early in, but it's pretty strange to read it like this:

Therapist: So, I'm told you have had some serious issues with your family? I'm here to help.

Patient: You might say that.

T: Did something painful happen recently?

P: My son murdered his father, my ex.

T: You son murdered his father! Is he in prison?

P: Not going to happen, he's too highly placed.

T: Why did he do it?

P: It's a long story. And a bit of a pattern.

T: Others in your family have done this?

P: You might say that. There are bad stories about everybody in my family.

T: Surely you had a good relationship with your mother?

P: I never met my mother. She died just as I was born.

T: How terrible. Death in childbirth is so rare in the modern era.

P: She didn't die in childbirth. I am told my father choked her.

T: Your father! So he went to jail?

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What disability rules are right for robotaxis?

Robocars are broadly going to be a huge boon for many people with disabilities, especially disabilities which make it difficult to drive or those that make it hard to get in and out of vehicles. Existing disability regulations and policies were written without robocars in mind, and there are probably some improvements that need to be made.

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Thank you, United, for finally charging for the overhead bin

I've seen many enraged notes from friends on how United Airlines will now charge for putting a bag in the overhead bin. While they aren't actually doing this, my reaction is not outrage, but actually something quite positive. And yours should be to, even when other airlines follow suit, as they will.

I fly too much on United. I have had their 1K status for several years, this year I logged over 200,000 miles, so I know all the things to dislike about the airline. Why is it good for them to do this?

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App stores need offline interfaces

Here's the situation: You're in a place with no bandwidth or limited bandwidth. It's just the place that you need to download an app, because the good apps, at least, can do more things locally and not make as much use of the network. But you can't get to the app store. The archetype of this situation is being on a plane with wifi and video offerings over the wifi. You get on board and you connect and it says you needed to download the app before you took off and got disconnected.

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What if the city ran Waze and you had to obey it? Could this cure congestion?

I believe we have the potential to eliminate a major fraction of traffic congestion in the near future, using technology that exists today which will be cheap in the future. The method has been outlined by myself and others in the past, but here I offer an alternate way to explain it which may help crystallize it in people's minds.

Today many people drive almost all the time guided by their smartphone, using navigation apps like Google Maps, Apple Maps or Waze (now owned by Google.) Many have come to drive as though they were a robot under the command of the app, trusting and obeying it at every turn. Tools like these apps are even causing controversy, because in the hunt for the quickest trip, they are often finding creative routes that bypass congested major roads for local streets that used to be lightly used.

Put simply, the answer to traffic congestion might be, "What if you, by law, had to obey your navigation app at rush hour?" To be more specific, what if the cities and towns that own the streets handed out reservations for routes on those streets to you via those apps, and your navigation app directed you down them? And what if the cities made sure there were never more cars put on a piece of road than it had capacity to handle? (The city would not literally run Waze, it would hand out route reservations to it, and Waze would still do the UI and be a private company.)

The value is huge. Estimates suggest congestion costs around 160 billion dollars per year in the USA, including 3 billion gallons of fuel and 42 hours of time for every driver. Roughly quadruple that for the world.

Road metering actually works

This approach would exploit one principle in road management that's been most effective in reducing congestion, namely road metering. The majority of traffic congestion is caused, no surprise, by excess traffic -- more cars trying to use a stretch of road than it has the capacity to handle. There are other things that cause congestion -- accidents, gridlock and irrational driver behaviour, but even these only cause traffic jams when the road is near or over capacity.

Today, in many cities, highway metering is keeping the highways flowing far better than they used to. When highways stall, the metering lights stop cars from entering the freeway as fast as they want. You get frustrated waiting at the metering light but the reward is you eventually get on a freeway that's not as badly overloaded.

Another type of metering is called congestion pricing. Pioneered in Singapore, these systems place a toll on driving in the most congested areas, typically the downtown cores at rush hour. They are also used in London, Milan, Stockholm and some smaller towns, but have never caught on in many other areas for political reasons. Congestion charging can easily be viewed as allocating the roads to the rich when they were paid for by everybody's taxes.

A third successful metering system is the High-occupancy toll lane. HOT lanes take carpool lanes that are being underutilized, and let drivers pay a market-based price to use them solo. The price is set to bring in just enough solo drivers to avoid wasting the spare capacity of the lane without overloading it. Taking those solo drivers out of the other lanes improves their flow as well. While not every city will admit it, carpool lanes themselves have not been a success. 90% of the carpools in them are families or others who would have carpooled anyway. The 10% "induced" carpools are great, but if the carpool lane only runs at 50% capacity, it ends up causing more congestion than it saves. HOT is a metering system that fixes that problem.

The Electoral College: Good, bad or Trump trumper, and how to abolish it if you want

Many are writing about the Electoral college. Can it still prevent Trump's election, and should it be abolished?

Like almost everybody, I have much to say about the US election results. The core will come later -- including an article I was preparing long before the election but whose conclusions don't change much because of the result, since Trump getting 46.4% is not (outside of the result) any more surprising than Trump getting 44% like we expected. But for now, since I have written about the college before, let me consider the debate around it.

By now, most people are aware that the President is not elected Nov 8th, but rather by the electors around Dec 19. The electors are chosen by their states, based on popular vote. In almost all states all electors are from the party that won the popular vote in a "winner takes all," but in a couple small ones they are distributed. In about half the states, the electors are bound by law to vote for the candidate who won the popular vote in that state. In other states they are party loyalists but technically free. Some "faithless" electors have voted differently, but it's very rare.

I'm rather saddened by the call by many Democrats to push for electors to be faithless, as well as calls at this exact time to abolish the college. There are arguments to abolish the college, but the calls today are ridiculously partisan, and thus foolish. I suspect that very few of those shouting to abolish the college would be shouting that if Trump had won the popular vote and lost the college (which was less likely but still possible.) In one of Trump's clever moves, he declared that he would not trust the final results (if he lost) and this tricked his opponents into getting very critical of the audacity of saying such a thing. This makes it much harder for Democrats to now declare the results are wrong and should be reversed.

The college approach -- where the people don't directly choose their leader -- is not that uncommon in the world. In my country, and in most of the British parliamentary democracies, we are quite used to it. In fact, the Prime Minister's name doesn't even appear on our ballots as a fiction the way it does in the USA. We elect MPs, voting for them mostly (but not entirely) on party lines, and the parties have told us in advance who they will name as PM. (They can replace their leader after if they want, but by convention, not rule, another election happens not long after.)

In these systems it's quite likely that a party will win a majority of seats without winning the popular vote. In fact, it happens a lot of the time. That's because in the rest of the world there are more than 2 parties, and no party wins the popular vote. But it's also possible for the party that came 2nd in the popular vote to form the government, sometimes with a majority, and sometimes in an alliance.

Origins of the college

When the college was created, the framers were not expecting popular votes at all. They didn't think that the common people (by which they meant wealthy white males) would be that good at selecting the President. In the days before mass media allowed every voter to actually see the candidates, one can understand this. The system technically just lets each state pick its electors, and they thought the governor or state house would do it.

Later, states started having popular votes (again only of land owning white males) to pick the electors. They did revise the rules of the college (12th amendment) but they kept it because they were federalists, strong advocates of states' rights. They really didn't imagine the public picking the President directly.

Comma One goes Open Source, Robocars in New Zealand Earthquakes and more

There have been few postings this month since I took the time to enjoy a holiday in New Zealand around speaking at the SingularityU New Zealand summit in Christchurch. The night before the summit, we enjoyed a 7.8 earthquake not so far from Christchurch, whose downtown was over 2/3 demolished after quakes in 2010 and 2011. On the 11th floor of the hotel, it was a disturbing nailbiter of swaying back and forth for over 2 minutes -- but of course swaying is what the building is supposed to do; that means it's working.

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How will robotaxi services compete in the future?

Right now Uber, Lyft and traditional taxis are competing. But in the robocar world of the future, when large fleets of cars operate as taxis and replace car ownership for many, how will they compete with one another. Will there be a monopoly in each town, or just a couple of companies? Can we have dozens? Does the biggest fleet win?

I have a new major article on the subject. I also welcome comments on other ways these services might find a competitive edge.

Read Competition in the Robotaxi world

If you built "Westworld" (or other robot sex) it would probably be with VR

HBO released a new version of "Westworld" based on the old movie about a robot-based western theme park. The show hasn't excited me yet -- it repeats many of the old tropes on robots/AI becoming aware -- but I'm interested in the same thing the original talked about -- simulated experiences for entertainment.

The new show misses what's changed since the original. I think it's more likely they will build a world like this with a combination of VR, AI and specialty remotely controlled actuators rather than with independent self-contained robots.

One can understand the appeal of presenting the simulation in a mostly real environment. But the advantages of the VR experience are many. In particular, with the top-quality, retinal resolution light-field VR we hope to see in the future, the big advantage is you don't need to make the physical things look real. You will have synthetic bodies, but they only have to feel right, and only just where you touch them. They don't have to look right. In particular, they can have cables coming out of them connecting them to external computing and power. You don't see the cables, nor the other manipulators that are keeping the cables out of your way (even briefly unplugging them) as you and they move.

This is important to get data to the devices -- they are not robots as their control logic is elsewhere, though we will call them robots -- but even more important for power. Perhaps the most science fictional thing about most TV robots is that they can run for days on internal power. That's actually very hard.

The VR has to be much better than we have today, but it's not as much of a leap as the robots in the show. It needs to be at full retinal resolution (though only in the spot your eyes are looking) and it needs to be able to simulate the "light field" which means making the light from different distances converge correctly so you focus your eyes at those distances. It has to be lightweight enough that you forget you have it on. It has to have an amazing frame-rate and accuracy, and we are years from that. It would be nice if it were also untethered, but the option is also open for a tether which is suspended from the ceiling and constantly moved by manipulators so you never feel its weight or encounter it with your arms. (That might include short disconnections.) However, a tracking laser combined with wireless power could also do the trick to give us full bandwidth and full power without weight.

It's probably not possible to let you touch the area around your eyes and not feel a headset, but add a little SF magic and it might be reduced to feeling like a pair of glasses.

The advantages of this are huge:

  • You don't have to make anything look realistic, you just need to be able to render that in VR.
  • You don't even have to build things that nobody will touch, or go to, including most backgrounds and scenery.
  • You don't even need to keep rooms around, if you can quickly have machines put in the props when needed before a player enters the room.
  • In many cases, instead of some physical objects, a very fast manipulator might be able to quickly place in your way textures and surfaces you are about to touch. For example, imagine if, instead of a wall, a machine with a few squares of wall surface quickly holds one out anywhere you're about to touch. Instead of a door there is just a robot arm holding a handle that moves as you push and turn it.
  • Proven tricks in VR can get people to turn around without realizing it, letting you create vast virtual spaces in small physical ones. The spaces will be designed to match what the technology can do, of course.
  • You will also control the audio and cancel sounds, so your behind-the-scenes manipulations don't need to be fully silent.
  • You do it all with central computers, you don't try to fit it all inside a robot.
  • You can change it all up any time.

In some cases, you need the player to "play along" and remember not to do things that would break the illusion. Don't try to run into that wall or swing from that light fixture. Most people would play along.

For a lot more money, you might some day be able to do something more like Westworld. That has its advantages too:

  • Of course, the player is not wearing any gear, which will improve the reality of the experience. They can touch their faces and ears.
  • Superb rendering and matching are not needed, nor the light field or anything else. You just need your robots to get past the uncanny valley
  • You can use real settings (like a remote landscape for a western) though you may have a few anachronisms. (Planes flying overhead, houses in the distance.)
  • The same transmitted power and laser tricks could work for the robots, but transmitting enough power to power a horse is a great deal more than enough to power a headset. All this must be kept fully hidden.

The latter experience will be made too, but it will be more static and cost a lot more money.

Yes, there will be sex

Warning: We're going to get a bit squicky here for some folks.

Westworld is on HBO, so of course there is sex, though mostly just a more advanced vision of the classic sex robot idea. I think that VR will change sex much sooner. In fact, there is already a small VR porn industry, and even some primitive haptic devices which tie into what's going on in the porn. I have not tried them but do not imagine them to be very sophisticated as yet, but that will change. Indeed, it will change to the point where porn of this sort becomes a substitute for prostitution, with some strong advantages over the real thing (including, of course, the questions of legality and exploitation of humans.)

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