Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Grander Challenge

The winners of last year's Pentagon-sponsored robot race have been given a higher bar to hurdle ---  develop a vehicle that can drive through congested city traffic all by itself. They "will have to navigate a complex 60-mile test course designed like a real city street filled with moving manned and unmanned vehicles ... make sharp turns, navigate traffic circles and avoid obstacles such as utility poles, trees and parked cars ... obey traffic laws, change lanes, merge with moving cars and pull into a parking lot using only their computer brain and sensors."

The technical name for it is the 2007 Urban Challenge "which is also known as the DARPA Urban Challenge, will take place on November 3, 2007. The location of the event is not announced until the qualification process is complete. The course will involve a 60-mile urban area course, to be completed in fewer than 6 hours. Rules will include the obeying of traffic laws while negotiating other traffic and obstacles and merging into traffic." A PDF describing the event can be found here.


If this technology ever proves out we can have self-driving vehicles that will essentially function as chauffeured vehicles. You probably wouldn't need to know how to drive to own a car. This would benefit the elderly and the infirm and probably increase the utilization of existing vehicles to make it possible for a two car family to make do with one, simply because the vehicle can be on the road when one passenger is spending time at a destination. Of course it would also give a wholly different meaning to the words "VBIED", but sigh, there's always the good with the bad in technical progress.


Blogger Woman Catholic said...

Of course it would also give a wholly different meaning to the words "VBIED", but sigh, there's always the good with the bad in technical progress.

The challenge after this one (2008) will be a robot sniper who pokes its head out of the sunroof of the winning robot car and shoots anyone who looks like they're got something to hide. We'll put a whole fleet of these car/robot combos on the streets of Baghdad and bring all the troops home in time for the Presidential elections. This development parallels the evolution of space travel where after losing 14 astronauts we substitute robots to drive around on planets instead.

10/03/2006 07:36:00 PM  
Blogger Stephen Macklin said...

60 miles in 6 hours?

Obviously the course doesn't include a simulation of the George Washington Bridge.

10/03/2006 07:54:00 PM  
Blogger Jamie Irons said...


...make sharp turns, navigate traffic circles and avoid obstacles such as utility poles, trees and parked cars ... obey traffic laws, change lanes, merge with moving cars and pull into a parking...

I pass dozens of "drivers" every day on my way to work who, handicapped as they are by lattes, cigarettes, laptops, iPods, cell phones and various other appurtenances of the modern (wo)man, are wholly unable to accomplish such feats as these...

Jamie Irons

10/03/2006 09:46:00 PM  
Blogger ledger said...

This should be very interesting. Just having a terrain map embedded in a vehicle and GPS way points will no longer due.

10/03/2006 11:51:00 PM  
Blogger Bruce Dearborn Walker said...

Will they call them manshonyaggers? Or will that be the beta title?

10/04/2006 04:58:00 AM  
Blogger Pyrthroes said...

Every few months, the art/science of Robotics takes another incremental step. By 2030, "intelligence" will have arisen as "emergent order" in the form of globally-networked sentience-- indefinable, ineluctable, indestructible. Self-driving autos are a link in this chain, but beware: Innovations of this magnitude invariably have consequences not only unforeseen but unforeseeable.

What we really need is access to the Third Dimension: Flight. Bring on cold-fusion, super-conducting anti-gravity belts NOW. By 2030, of course, rampant Muslos will demand that flea-infested camels be accorded equal time.

10/04/2006 05:58:00 AM  
Blogger 3Case said...

Think of it! You could send the car to Outback to get dinner! Turn the heat up in the interior to keep your steaks n' veggies warm...just how do we keep the Bloomin' Onion crisp. Dessrt n' salads would go in the unheated trunk, of course.

10/04/2006 06:04:00 AM  
Blogger geoffgo said...


Of course, by that time, Outback will use its own "smart scooter" to deliver.

10/04/2006 06:25:00 AM  
Blogger dicconzane said...

I can see the future now. The human race always at home, now just blobs with fingers. Everything done over the net and streets only filled with robot cars.


10/04/2006 07:49:00 AM  
Blogger Sardonic said...

Combined with AI advancements, nano-technology, stem cell research among others - the possibility/probability of serious consequences rises a notch each year. What happens when the Robo-Cars are hijacked by a virus AI that starts crashing ALL of them in a given region? What happens if the Robo-Soldiers contract an AI Virus? Terminator comes to mind. Except the retarded idea that anyone would survive an attack by SkyNet and be able to build a time machine to save us is ... well, retarded. Actually, we would all simply be dead. Period.

Not to be despairing about advanced technology. My point instead is that these technologies require - repeat REQUIRE - development planning and controls that would prohibit the worst case scenarios.

Unfortunately, our societ with its focus on pell-mell grab-what-you-can development leads me to wonder if any controls are being even so much as contemplated. The answer: no. Asimov would not approve. Arthur C. Clark is grimacing. The entire promise of advanced technology depended on a Rational Approach to development. Instead we got ... The Business Imperative. The results remain to be seen. Let us hope for the best, but I'm building an AI Proof bunker with 2000 years worth of baked beans and donuts just in case. ewwww... never mind.

To my mind these are the REAL threats facing the human race in the 21st - 22nd Centuries. Really, I think we need to use the Terrorism threat as a catalyst, not substitute, for figuring out how we will manage the bigger more pressing problems facing us.

Robo-Death Squads on AI with Nano-Sensors and Internal-Nano-Munitions-Factories producing stem-cell derived Rhino-Gorrilla-Crocodile-Einstien Hunter-killers is not something that I look forward to very much. Geh.

10/04/2006 08:03:00 AM  
Blogger metaphysician2 said...

Teresita- Not exactly. 17 astronauts have died to date, but only three before robotic probes began being used. And ask any scientist, and they'll tell you all the limitations robots have relative to actual people on the ground. They do some things better, but not without cost.

Sardonic- Try rereading the Asimov. The whole point of "I, Robot" was that anything can have unintended consequences, including and especially controls imposed specifically to prevent that.

You also miss one little problem: Central Planning is great at preventing unforseen disasters mainly by virtue of ensuring that technological advancements don't actually happen in the first place. Emerging technologies have all kinds of potential for accident and abuse, but so did computers, nuclear energy, chemical engineering, electricity, and metallurgy. Its an unavoidable fact of scientific advancement.

10/04/2006 08:47:00 AM  
Blogger Charles said...

The most revolutionary part of this program is not the technology itself but rather the methodology of setting prizes for research goals. The genius of this is that it leverages 10 times more research bang for the research buck, eliminates the risk and gets dull bureaucrats out of the business of "picking a winner" apriori--since competitor can nauturally choose their own way of getting the prize.

I discuss the way congress has apprpriated money for a hydrogen prize--and how I wish the same thing would be done for water desalination here.

10/04/2006 09:08:00 AM  
Blogger Eggplant said...

With fully autonomous weapon systems, we're observing a revolution in warfare not unlike when the first soldier armed with an iron sword fought against those with bronze. With the Predator drones killing al Qaeda terrorists we've already seen the potential for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). UAV figher planes and bombers are currently being developed and will make manned military aircraft obsolete.

For those who were not paying attention, the recent war by Hezbollah against Israel conclusively demonstrated the final obsolescence of the manned tank. Hezbollah guerillas made mince meat out of Israel state-of-the-art Merkava tanks using over-the-counter Russian Kornet anti-armor missiles. The obvious response to anti-armor missiles is the unmanned autonomous tank. The beauty of an unmanned tank is it doesn't need armor (no one to protect). Mechanically, it's merely a caterpillar or 8 wheel carriage with a smooth bore large caliber weapon and/or chain gun mounted on top. The autonomus tank would have a suite of sensors, sophisticated computer, GPS and satellite communication system. The autonomous tank's operator like the UAV pilot would be in the US at a secure location and simply designate a target via satellite communication. The autonomous tank or UAV then goes after the target, destroys it and then waits for new instructions. This sort of weapon is utterly fearless and can be immune to most IEDs. It also fights in all weather, day or night. The only people who die (initially) are the enemy. Of course eventually the bad guys will have UAVs and autonomous tanks. Then we'll have robot wars on a national scale. One can imagine some future robot war being fought in the Sahara desert. Both sides invest hundreds of billions of dollars in military hardware until one side is defeated. The loser then surrenders knowing they're defenseless but does so without suffering a single human casulty. Of course if the machines become self-aware, you then have a "Terminator" situation but that's another story.

10/04/2006 09:33:00 AM  
Blogger skipsailing said...

yeah, yeah, all these so called obstacles are just fine but to really simulate a traffic situation the robot must be able to APPLY MASCARA while talking on the phone, listening to NPR and sipping a latte.

Its the mascara application task that will cause the most failures.

10/04/2006 10:46:00 AM  
Blogger Roderick said...

To eggplant:
Interesting and even plausible scenario, but a couple of quibbles.
Iron swords were not better than bronze ones performance-wise. The Iron revolution meant that it was easier nad cheaper to manufacture and acquire iron weapons that were just as good as bronze. It was a multiplying factor like the anti-tank weapons you mentioned.

As to the Merkava, you exagerate the vulnerability and obsolescence of tanks. The Abrams M-1 has proven to be remarkably effective in urban warfare for unexpected reasons, even though some have been destroyed by IEDs.

10/04/2006 11:09:00 AM  
Blogger 3Case said...


Would the Outback delivery smart scooter be programable to pull into my garage, thereby saving me the walk to the curb?


10/04/2006 12:08:00 PM  
Blogger Eggplant said...

Roderick said...

"Iron swords were not better than bronze ones performance-wise. The Iron revolution meant that it was easier nad cheaper to manufacture and acquire iron weapons that were just as good as bronze."

I'm sceptical. I've never held a bronze sword (seen them in museums). However I've used a bronze drift punch for bashing out wheel bearings. I almost always need to file the tip of the punch square after using it. My nice steel drift punch can remain square after multiple use. Truth to tell, if I don't want to reuse the wheel bearing, I just bash it out with the steel punch because it's too much trouble filing the bronze punch square.

There's no doubt in my mind that in a sword fight between hardened steel and bronze, the bronze sword would lose its edge and get bent pretty quick. Of course the early sword fights would have been hardened bronze against low quality pig iron (the ancient Egyptians knew how to case harden bronze). If you read Julius Caesar's "War Commentaries", you'll find him describing how the Gauls used long swords of low quality iron against Romans with their short steel Spanish swords. The Gaulish sword would get bent the first time they wacked it against a Roman shield. The foolish Gaul would then put the sword blade on the ground, step on it with his foot and then try to bend it back. Needless to the say, the Roman legionare proceeded to slice off the Gaul's head while he was fiddling around with his bent sword.

Also, a bronze sword was easier to make than an iron sword. Bronze sword blades were simply cast and then sharpened. Iron swords in the ancient world were made by starting with an iron sponge that was heated red hot, folded through hand forging. This process of heating the iron and folding it through forging was repeated many times until the blade had some strength (very labor intensive). Japanese sword smiths transformed this process into an art form by producing beautiful patterns on the sword's blade through repeated forging.

10/04/2006 12:53:00 PM  
Blogger jj mollo said...

I mean, seriously, this is a challenge that a lot of people couldn't meet. It takes a long time to train drivers to find their way about and stay out of trouble. If we're talking about Baghdad, these vehicles will become toys for teenagers to play with.

This kind of AI is not going to work without serious environment restrictions for a long time. I can picture self-chauffered cars on the interstate highways where the ruleset is closed. I can picture buses that follow prescribed routes, even opening the door for people. What I can't picture is anything that can deal with my own driving challenges. Trash trucks, detours, debris, block parties, drunken pedestrians, wobbly bicycles, kids on skateboards, footballs in the street, potholes, broken glass, cobblestones, trolley tracks, dogs, deer, road repair, black ice, slush puddles, children in leaf piles, incorrect addresses, disconnected street names, five-point intersections, missing stop signs, obscured stop signs, downed wires, flashing yellow lights, missing signal lights, gridlock, rush-hour rule changes, one lane bridges, wide loads, funeral processions, double parking, rule-breakers, lunatics, emergency vehicles, accidents, predatory tow trucks, merge lanes, lane changes, map errors, shore traffic, flagmen, flags on cars, uncharted deadends, loop streets, motorcycle gangs, police stops, downed branches and trees, mudslides, crosswalks, wheelchairs, inept or improptu traffic controllers, Segways, heelies, racoons, rocks, bears, kids on the overpass, faded lane markings, modified lane changes, missing reflecters, fog, tire changers, street repair shops, window "washers", parking. I think that for now, our jobs are safe.

10/04/2006 12:54:00 PM  
Blogger herb said...

Lexus already is marketing a self parking car. (Their high end (sic)) sedan. This aint all that far out.

10/04/2006 01:45:00 PM  
Blogger Arthur Dent said...

I don't buy into the singularity meme.

Of course everything is advancing at a huge rate. Advancing advances need civilization. Where the 'singularity' is going vertical is within loser nations who create nothing but are able to buy power.

'They' are going vertical because they are starting from zero. 'They' are 60 years behind.

In the first world, knowledge is so compartmentalized as to be a foreign language. Then again singularities are prone to come apart over time.

10/04/2006 05:01:00 PM  
Blogger BigSpaghetti said...

"You also miss one little problem: Central Planning is great at preventing unforseen disasters mainly by virtue of ensuring that technological advancements don't actually happen in the first place."

And to add to this thought, I would ask what good would central planning do to those that fall outside of the central planner’s umbrella? Also, given the horrors that central planning brought us throughout the 20th century I’ll happily take the boogie men that come with freedom. It has served us well so far.

Though, one question that comes to my mind is that if one man, alone, in a garage lab can manufacture a bio-weapon, what happens to “the right to privacy?”

10/04/2006 07:12:00 PM  
Blogger davidkd said...

Nice to see technology marching on; but the entire driving contest reminds me of a similar contest in Gene Wolfe's classic alternate history short story "How I Turned Back the German Invasion and Lost the Second World War".

10/04/2006 07:33:00 PM  
Blogger charlotte said...

Holy Batmobile, jj mollo! That's a list! You only left out pretty hitchhikers and liquored-up drag races between the Dairy Queen and Wally World.

10/04/2006 09:35:00 PM  
Blogger ppab said...

Re: the threats that surprise us as they spring forth out of new technology

When someone can make a bioweapon in their garage, someone can make a vaccine at their desk, and send it for fabrication in hundreds of other garages.

If new capabilities are unprecedented in their potential to threaten us, I think its imperative to develop a capacity to respond in-a-box. Or rather, a kind of adaptation-in-a-box, that will allow us to rapidly deal with the unforeseen, as there are always numerous options for dealing with a problem, but its selecting the response and implementing it that's the problem.

Avian flu science and industry being bottlenecked through congressional committees comes to mind. Also the Katrina response. If we get good at managing the boogeyman, as a commenter described, I think that makes the world alot safer, while protecting free enterprise by creating a whole new one.

10/04/2006 09:43:00 PM  
Blogger jj mollo said...

Catherine, That would be your part of the world. Sounds like you might have a list of your own. For one thing, we don't have hitchhikers. How about tractors and Amish buggies? Actually, I have stopped for duck crossings and horses. Drag races are usually after my bedtime. Kids on four wheelers coming out of blind alleys, I've had to deal with that. Psychotic women pushing baby strollers in the middle of the road, gunshot victim lying in the road, double parking in the medial strip, stickball games, loose rolls of spring steel unraveling into the road, beer can bowlers, bottomless puddles, house movers, lawn crews, motorized wheelchairs, protest marchers, fords, grated bridges, covered bridges, parking lot gates, toll gates, newspaper hawkers, moonies selling roses, thank-you-ma'ams, open sewer pipe ditches, water main breaks. Hey, I don't even drive that much. Maybe I'm just lucky. But human type people negotiate the same sort of problems every day without too much difficulty. I can't imagine that a robot could deal with it all. If your solution is to just hit the brakes every time your see something, you'll never get anywhere. Humans can tell when an obstruction can be ignored. Sometimes the worst thing you can do is stop.

10/04/2006 10:37:00 PM  
Blogger charlotte said...

Catherine, That would be your part of the world.

Actually, I stole it from TV world. Where I live we brake for @#! rats with bushy tails and slacker geese who have street parties by our neighborhood lake.

Mostly, it's the big yellow schoolbuses that pose a challenge as they are always stopping at corners and in the middle of blocks to disgorge cute little kids who stream out to the curb and then whose numbers dwindle to a trickle over a period of eight more minutes until finally little Alisha who had lost her homework somewhere on the back of the bus finally and sheepishly debarks, allowing traffic to resume, both wistfully and with elevated blood pressure. As the bus stop sign folds in, and pulls away, a couple of boys dart across the road, bless 'em, and with luck may live to make it into second grade.

You make a convincing point about the potential situational judgement differences between human and machine, but I thought robotic navigation is what men already did when they're behind the wheel, pretending not to be lost, and maintaining a steady mo no matter what................ :)

10/05/2006 07:53:00 AM  
Blogger Dave H said...

I can imagine a mass transportation system where there is a grid under all the roads, lanes, streets, drives and whatever withinthe boundaries of an area, call it a city or what you will. A vast number of "cars", 1, 2 and multi-passenger, no drivers, controlled by a very large number of PC like computers, dedicated to this task, and no other. You want to go someplace, you pull out your cell phone or some phonelike gadget and request transportation, the computers read off your location, you input your destination,your desired ETA, your priority rating, computers check your credit balance, give you an ETA, you OK it, computer routes the nearest empty to your location. It arrives and opens its door, you enter, sit back and read, do a crossword or whatever til you arrive.

No other forms of transportation allowed within the grid. In fact you would probably be issued your own personal transponder, eliminates the step above of inputing your location. Gaps in the location trace would be prima facis evidence of criminal intent.

Such a system would be very popular with the police, very unpopular with criminals and civil libertarians. Not sure I woud care for it myself, that world would probably have very cheap energy and an abundance of material goods. You could probably debate forever whether a world constituted in such a faction would best be described as Heaven, or at least Utopia, or Hell or whatever the antonym for Utopia is.

This might be where a robot wold would lead us. No?

10/05/2006 09:35:00 AM  
Blogger Dave H said...

Sorry about the numerous typos. If interested, live with it.

10/05/2006 09:40:00 AM  
Blogger RWE said...

It is obvious that we are preparing for a Clash of Civilizations that will cut off our supply of taxi drivers.

When Hollywood figures this out you can expect a remake of "Taxi" featuring Louie Depalma and a bunch of robots who look like Arnold Swarezengovenor.

Expect the DARPA challenge next year to include making change while running a Slurpee machine. The 7/11's will be the next battleground after the cabs.

I still can't figure out why no one has taken the Mars Rover concept and produced a solar powered autonomous lawnmower. Slightly modified versions could be used to patrol the Border. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs must both be in a coma.

Stephen Macklin: I was thinking almost the same thing, but the Wilson Bridge instead, preferably with an accident involving 3 semi trucks on the bridge and with a 100 car Police Funeral coming off Route 50 onto the Beltway at the same time. There were times on the way home to Alexandria that I thought I was going to have to get a motel room in Maryland.

10/05/2006 10:05:00 AM  
Blogger jj mollo said...

I forgot about funeral processions at red lights. A robot would try to cross before each successive member of the procession, not recognizing the collective identity of the procession, nor accepting its social prerogatives.

Anyway, ... so you're going to this fabulous party and you absolutely need to be there on time so that you can see what Bertha and Betty are wearing and tell them about the nature of Brunhilda's latest marriage problem. Your husband somehow manages to get lost in a twisty little mess of curvy little roads somewhere relatively pleasant but definitely not within earshot of Bertha and Betty. When he insists that he is not lost, please believe that he is telling the truth. Look at it this way, if you will chill and enjoy the scenery, you will come to understand that he is not a robot. Plus, you will have an exciting story to tell B&B at your next earliest opportunity.

10/06/2006 11:59:00 PM  

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