Issues, News and Views
RANDOM THOUGHTS ABOUT ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE AND AUTONOMOUS DRIVING
2017/11/27 - Back in March I went down to South Florida to do some cycling. I bought my plane ticket to Miami on my American Airlines credit card, as I did with my car rental, hotels, meals and gas. When I stopped for my final fill-up before returning the car, my card was declined for "suspicious activity".
Suspicious? A New Yorker flying to Miami in March? Renting a car? Staying at a hotel? Going to a restaurant? Buying gas? Indeed, buying gas near MIA after checking out of a hotel, but before returning a rental car? Really? Indeed, NOT buying gas would have been suspicious.
That got me thinking about data mining and AI. How did the Citibank/Mastercard algorithm dredge up my purchase as suspicious? Shouldn't it have worked the other way? Shouldn't their AI and data miners have predicted that I might soon be purchasing fuel near MIA? If I had been MIA, that would have been suspicious - send out an S&R!
There's a lot of cutting-edge research out there, and you routinely read about break-through technologies coming out of best-of-the-best labs in Silicon Valley. But what about the garden-variety folks pressing the AI buttons and pulling the AI levers across America as part of their work-a-day world? Like the Homer Simpsons running nuclear power plants?
What if the mid-tier developers and their mediocre managers across corporate America (and around the world) just aren't up to the task?
It's safe to assume the best of the best are doing research at some prestigious institution. So who's programming the credit card AI algorithm at Citibank? One would would have to presume that Citi chooses from among not the-best of the best - they're at Stanford, remember - and anecdotally that would seem to be the case.
As the usage of AI grows can we expect more and more misadventures caused by poorly programmed algorithms?
Autonomous driving seems to be one of the major applications for AI. A lot of talk about self-driving cars. But will it work?
Imagine driving down the highway and the wind blows a shopping bag or piece of newsprint across our path. We drive on without a second thought, but the AI sees only a large opaque object and slams on the brakes.
Or driving down a suburban street, where the autonomous driving system cannot distinguish between a pile of leaves and a skid of bricks. Never having jumped into a pile of leaves as a kid, your AI has no way to learn sensually, experientially, what it is, and is not, in for.
Think about this: The number of cars that a lane of highway can expedite is a function of the speed of the cars, and the distance between the cars.
But here's where it gets interesting. The Swiss physicist Bernoulli in 1738 showed that as the velocity of a fluid is increased, the pressure decreases. Similarly, as cars move faster, the space between them increases, and you can put more cars on the highway.
The ramifications of this principle of physics is important. When drivers travel faster than the posted speed, it resists congestion (pressure) and perpetuates a virtuous cycle of continued free-flowing traffic. When slower traffic enter the highway, it creates congestion and a vicious cycle where congestion self-creates even more congestion.
The fact is that in most urban centers the posted speed is far too slow to sustain a virtuous cycle of traffic flow. Everyone drives 75+ miles per hour in a 55mph zone, and no on gets a ticket. Anyone attempting to do 55mph - and some disrespectful, law-abiding people do - bring traffic to a grinding screeching halt. Ever wonder where traffic jams come from?
What would happen if everyone drove the posted speed one morning, say 55mph? And maintained the recommended distance between vehicles of 5.5 car lengths (l length / 10mph).
See the chart below. Using a 2017 Ford Fusion as our standard vehicle, and observed speed and spacing of 75 mph and 3 car lengths of speration, a lane of highway has a maximum theoretical capacity of 6,194 vehicles. But at the standard speed limit of 55 mph and standard spacing of one car length per 10 mph, that lane's capacity falls by more than half, to only 2,795 vehicles.
Here's what would happen: there would not be sufficient capacity to move the required number of cars. Long before the height of rush hour that highway would be at full capacity perhaps sixty miles out from the city center until perhaps mid-morning. Anyone attempting to get on the highway, say, forty miles from the city center, might get their first chance around noon; and anyone, say, twenty miles out? No chance. That entire town would be a parking lot all day, of log jam of vehicles - occupied by people - lined up waiting for a slot that will never come up.
And so we cheat, and it works. We drive far faster than the posted speed, and we leave not even half the recommended distance between cars. Do we drive 55 @ 5.5 car lengths? Ha, try 75 at 3 car lengths! That's how we cram the necessary number of vehicles through the system.
So what does a programmer of AI/autonomous driving do? Does she program the car to break the law, since we all know we all break the law anyhow? And what about following to close? What kind of civil and criminal liability might be embedded in that programmer's code?
If you are regularly driving on highways where the ambient is speed is 20mph above the posted speed, will you be happy about your trip times increasing by 50% when autonomous vehicles pull the average speed down? Will you still be able to coach baseball? Will you need to get up an hour earlier - and go to bed an hour earlier the night before - to beat the doddling and dithering? Will your 2-hour drive to your weekend cabin turn into 3-hours of dreary drudgery?
Will commuters move to city centers? Or will large corporate employers be forced to move back the 'burbs, a repeat of the '50's and '60's? Or will more highways be constructed? Or will the greenies get their way and give up on individual transportation entirely, and replace highways with railways and force us all to take the train everywhere, even to places where trains don't go?
Or will AI/AD enable policy makers to increase speed limits? Perhaps autonomous vehicles will communicate and cooridinate so well with each other that safety will be greatly enhanced, while simultaneously allowing for both increased speeds and reduced spacing, thus greatly expanding capacity?
Will autonomous driving attain true autonomy? Can AI/AD eliminate DUI's - will it have a "party mode"? Could your autonomous vehicle have an onboard breathalyzer, and if the driver blows over .08%, block all driver input and take the occupants directly to a pre-set location, probably the owner's residence?
Will you even own a car in the future? Or will you just purchase rides? Will the car dealer (and hopefully those obnoxious commercials) go the way of the buggy whip, if people just order rides from car fleets sitting in garages?
Most cars on the highway have one occupant, the driver. If that one occupant is no longer a driver, one presumes that the geometry and architecture of an automobile will completely change. Perhaps club seating with two rows, each of two or three seats, facing each other rather than facing the same direction? Or perhaps four seat/desk compartments facing outward from the center in an "x" or "+" configuaration, so each occupant can in privacy bury themselves in their devices?
We are at just the beginning of a major transformation of our society, perhaps the greatest transformation ever. AI may be a bigger advance than the wheel, harnessing fire, metal tools, the industrial revolution... and perhaps even better than sliced bread. Or maybe a disaster worse than 20th Century tyrants.
SCATTERED THOUGHTS ABOUT RESPECT
2017/10/25 - I have been thinking a lot about the words "respect" and "deference" of late. Thoughts perhaps triggered by being hit by a car while cycling last autumn. Or the disrespect demonstrated for our national symbols by NFL players. I havenít come up with an integrated unifying theory of deference yet, and maybe I never will. So Iíll just dump some ideas Ė some good, some perhaps not so much - that are circulating in my head.
The word "deference" means to defer to others, usually in regards to a higher rank, position, age or some other measure of importance. But I prefer to use the word a bit differently at times, to defer to others irrespective of whether they have the right of way, a higher rank, or some other preferred claim.
As I drive through the streets of Manhattan I am frequently disappointed by pedestrians who, without the right of way, wander in front of my wife's oncoming Jeep Grand Cherokee, trudging slowly into, and even more slowly through, my likely track. Itís almost like they gain some kind of inner credibility by defying an oncoming vehicle, as if to say to the driver, "I will make you slow down, and you will proceed at a pace of my choosing".
Part of maturing (and getting old) is that you learn. You learn from your mistakes as well as the mistakes of others, and you learn from the good as well. You pattern yourselves after role models, as well as doing your utmost to reinforce your own good choices. When you make a good choice, try to repeat that choice, try to make it a habit.
So now when I cross a street, I make a point of hustling across, rather than loafing along. Sure, I might have the right of way over the car attempting a turn, but I try to be deferential Ė I try to aid his progess, as well as the progress of the drivers behind him who are also hopeful of making the turn before the light changes. In my own little way doing my part to minimize congestion, keep traffic moving, help the environment too, and so forth.
The idea of a greater good raises the broader idea of "character". What makes character? What do I need to do to improve my character? As a "type-A" personality I donít beat around the bush. Neither in word nor deed. Thus honesty comes easily, Iím a straight-shooter. Perhaps blunt at times. Brutally blunt even. Iím also punctual, timely. Iím offended when people waste my time. You can call me any name you want, I donít care - I know who I am and nothing you say can change that. But if you waste my time, that insults me - nothing I can do can get that time back.
But what part of my character do I think I need to improve? Four words have come repeatedly to mind: thankfulness, kindness, deference, selflessness.
The last of those - selfishness - is probably the easiest to identify in others and paradoxically probably the hardest to change in oneself. People are inherently selfish, and we live in a selfish society that continually provokes selfish behavior, selfish thought, selfishness as a general overarching condition.
I learned to fly airplanes, and that training provided good lessons, though unintended, on selflessness. Student pilots are taught "situational awareness" Ė knowing whatís going on all around, realizing that risks lie not merely in a flat 2-dimensional 360 circle, but in a far more complex 3-dimensional sphere. You are taught to not fixate on yourself, but instead, that your survival depends on being aware of and deferential toward others. Good life lessons.
I live in Manhattan, Upper East Side. I routinely see people, seemingly affluent and educated (and probably liberal and Democrat), wearing flip-flops, allowing their dogs to urinate on the side walk. C'mon man, hust because youíre okay with splashing around in dog piss (K9-1) - in your flip-flops! - doesnít mean anyone else is. I score that as a rather substantial disrespect. Curb your dog!
I work in Harlem. And ride my bike throughout the place. In addition to the K9-1 problem, they also have a K9-2 problem up there. Lots of folks clean up after their dogs, but plenty donít. Legal or not, thatís a disrespect. And litter Ė a lot of litter. People dropping their trash anywhere. Thatís a disrespect Ė to your community, to your neighbors, to your friends, to yourself.
I rode my bike a lot this summer, and that probably influenced a lot of my thinking about character. Biking in New York City generates a lot of "Go-Pro" moments (kind of a nasty version of the old "Kodak moment"), and once Iím out of town I have a lot of time to reflect on those near-misses.
The other day I stopped to fill up my car at an upstate (NY) gas station. There were people filling their cars at the two pumps on the one side; on the other side a guy with a pickup and trailer was occupying both pumps, but not pumping gas from either. He was sitting in his truck texting. I came over and asked him if he could move along, and he said he'd be happy to as soon as he was done with his message.
And then there are the folks who obstruct traffic in the left lanes, cruising and loafing rather than purposefully passing. As if their's is the only vehicle on the road. Or they have absolutely no idea what is going on around them. Or they believe they are the official arbiters of the speed at which everyone else should travel. Or they have absolutely no idea as to the laws and/or etiquette. Or they are ill-willed people intentionally creating traffic congestion for the sheer joy and satisfaction of it.
As I focus on deference, the theme that keeps repeating itself is the lack of deference I see around me. The willingness of motorists to perform maneuvers that are thoroughly irrational - useless and dangerous at the same time. Like passing a cyclist on a narrow street fifty yards before a light that just turned red. Okay, you wasted gas, wore your brakes, endangered me, and youíre still stopped at a light. And now Iím going to pass you. Again. What was the point? Nothing that I can understand.
And pedestrians? Not even gonna start.
Iím not saying cyclists are innocent either, not by a longshot Ė cyclists could do well and do good to learn the meaning of those words "kindness", "deference" and "selflessness" as well.
But this isnít about cycling in the city. Itís about deference and respect, or the lack thereof. Itís about how a spring and summer of cycling and pondering the idea of respect, gave way to an autumn of seeing NFL players demonstrate their disrespect for the greatest country ever. Of millionaire athletes disrespecting our nation. Of being unthankful for the opportunities this nation affords.
By any measure the United States of America is the best country ever. Even the poorest of the poor in America are better off, better fed, safer, have a longer life expectancy, have more family and friends, have more leisure time and opportunities for amusement, than almost any humans that have ever trod this planet, anywhere else, any time else.
I am not a natural born citizen. I became an American citizen by choice, because it was something I wanted so dearly. I am passionate about my love for the United States of America. So when I see Americans Ė people who have so much to be thankful for, and proud of Ė disrespecting America, I see people who think totally differently than I do. And I want to figure out how they got there. And no, I havenít figured it out.
Iíve wondered how a certain segment of a society falls into a vicious cycle, a doom of repeated failure. And the idea Iíve come up with is thatís what happens when credibility (also known as "street cred" or just simply "cred") is valued above deference. A downward spiral will be the most likely outcome when the cred-seekers Ė I'll call them credheads Ė come to dominate the culture of a community, when they become the opinion leaders, the role models, the tastemakers. Such as athletes and entertainers.
It seems like cred is gained by disrespecting others. You exert your dominance over a rival by dissing them. Either they back down and accept the diss, and you switch pegs on the cred ladder; or, they accept the challenge and the fight is on, the credheads duking it out with each other in one form or another.
Do you also gain cred by fighting some kind of vague "system"? All people are selfish, so naturally the credhead is as well. People who learn from their mistakes and failures are destined for success, by definition. But credheads on the other hand believe that whatever they define as "The System" is out to get them, so they either passively avoid "The System" or actively fight aginst it. And when personal achievement is predictably elusive, they blame "The System" (whatever that is), or someone else, or something else. And rather than learning, they fight. They fight whoever they happen to blame. Rather than respecting others, they blame others.
They rebel against their parents, against their teachers, againstÖ you name it. Everyone and everything is to blame for their failures. There is no point in learning lessons, or staying in school, or trying to get a job. Everything that goes wrong is the fault of someone or something else, it's not the credheadís fault. Itís Americaís fault. Racism. Bigotry. White Privilege. And so the self-defeating vicious cycle repeats itself.
Did you know that the number one cause of death of young Hispanics is traffic accidents? Of young whites is suicide? Of young blacks is suicide? Now thereís a great way to disrespect someone, by murdering them. Which gains you cred.
There are other ways to build cred. Think of the problems the NFL has had with domestic abuse. If you havenít learned deference as a character trait, then you will be prone to hitting people who are weaker than you are. You gain cred by proving that you can, and you prove you can by doing it. You do because you can. You put up or shut up.
You build cred by winning fights, and lose cred by losing fights. So donít pick fights you might lose. Pick fights against the weak, the vulnerable.
Another good way to gain cred seems to be to get arrested. The System is bad, the police enforce The System. You fight The System by fighting The Police. The Police put you in jail. Therefore, jail is good Ė and a rap sheet is like a service record. Five tours of duty, two purple hearts, three sliver stars, one medal of honorÖ seven arrests, five convictions, four years total jail time, 3 B&Eís, 2 DUIís, 1 assault, 2 firearms, 1 armed robbery. A lot of cred there. A true war hero.
As a youngster you were too busy rebelling against The System to showcase your intellectual prowess, and instead bought into a destructive world view. But along the way you also displayed some athleticism, and were shepherded through the credhead minefield to the nirvana of pro sports.
So now youíve made it to the NFL. But you would not learn deference or respect, because those characteristics are indicators of weakness. Canít show weakness, that makes you prey. So you keep fighting. You keep disrespecting. They show you a flag and play you a song. So you disrespect that too. Because disrespecting is what you do.
And that's exactly the kind of person I don't want to be. What's the opposite of a role model? Because that's what NFL players are. I want to be not like an NFL player.
Sometimes you learn what something is, by understanding what it is not. So I suppose I should be thankful to the NFL players for teaching me about deference and thankfulness, by demonstrating disrespect and ungratefulness.
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