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Advances in neural implants and genetic engineering suggest that in the not–too–distant future we may be able to boost human intelligence. If that’s true, could we—and should we—bring our animal cousins along for the ride?
Human brain augmentation made headlines last year after several tech firms announced ambitious efforts to build neural implant technology. Duke University neuroscientist Mikhail Lebedev told me in July it could be decades before these devices have applications beyond the strictly medical.
But he said the technology, as well as other pharmacological and genetic engineering approaches, will almost certainly allow us to boost our mental capacities at some point in the next few decades.
Whether this kind of cognitive enhancement is a good idea or not, and how we should regulate it, are matters of heated debate among philosophers, futurists, and bioethicists, but for some it has raised the question of whether we could do the same for animals.
There’s already tantalizing evidence of the idea’s feasibility. As detailed in BBC Future, a group from MIT found that mice that were genetically engineered to express the human FOXP2 gene linked to learning and speech processing picked up maze routes faster. Another group at Wake Forest University studying Alzheimer’s found that neural implants could boost rhesus monkeys’ scores on intelligence tests.
The concept of “animal uplift” is most famously depicted in the Planet of the Apes movie series, whose planet–conquering protagonists are likely to put most people off the idea. But proponents are less pessimistic about the outcomes.
Science fiction author David Brin popularized the concept in his “Uplift” series of novels, in which humans share the world with various other intelligent animals that all bring their own unique skills, perspectives, and innovations to the table. “The benefits, after a few hundred years, could be amazing,” he told Scientific American.
Others, like George Dvorsky, the director of the Rights of Non-Human Persons program at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, go further and claim there is a moral imperative. He told the Boston Globe that denying augmentation technology to animals would be just as unethical as excluding certain groups of humans.
Others are less convinced. Forbes’ Alex Knapp points out that developing the technology to uplift animals will likely require lots of very invasive animal research that will cause huge suffering to the animals it purports to help. This is problematic enough with normal animals, but could be even more morally dubious when applied to ones whose cognitive capacities have been enhanced.
The whole concept could also be based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of intelligence. Humans are prone to seeing intelligence as a single, self-contained metric that progresses in a linear way with humans at the pinnacle.
In an opinion piece in Wired arguing against the likelihood of superhuman artificial intelligence, Kevin Kelly points out that science has no such single dimension with which to rank the intelligence of different species. Each one combines a bundle of cognitive capabilities, some of which are well below our own capabilities and others which are superhuman. He uses the example of the squirrel, which can remember the precise location of thousands of acorns for years.
Uplift efforts may end up being less about boosting intelligence and more about making animals more human-like. That represents “a kind of benevolent colonialism” that assumes being more human-like is a good thing, Paul Graham Raven, a futures researcher at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, told the Boston Globe. There’s scant evidence that’s the case, and it’s easy to see how a chimpanzee with the mind of a human might struggle to adjust.
There are also fundamental barriers that may make it difficult to achieve human-level cognitive capabilities in animals, no matter how advanced brain augmentation technology gets. In 2013 Swedish researchers selectively bred small fish called guppies for bigger brains. This made them smarter, but growing the energy-intensive organ meant the guppies developed smaller guts and produced fewer offspring to compensate.
This highlights the fact that uplifting animals may require more than just changes to their brains, possibly a complete rewiring of their physiology that could prove far more technically challenging than human brain augmentation.
Our intelligence is intimately tied to our evolutionary history—our brains are bigger than other animals’; opposable thumbs allow us to use tools; our vocal chords make complex communication possible. No matter how much you augment a cow’s brain, it still couldn’t use a screwdriver or talk to you in English because it simply doesn’t have the machinery.
Finally, from a purely selfish point of view, even if it does become possible to create a level playing field between us and other animals, it may not be a smart move for humanity. There’s no reason to assume animals would be any more benevolent than we are, having evolved in the same ‘survival of the fittest’ crucible that we have. And given our already endless capacity to divide ourselves along national, religious, or ethnic lines, conflict between species seems inevitable.
We’re already likely to face considerable competition from smart machines in the coming decades if you believe the hype around AI. So maybe adding a few more intelligent species to the mix isn’t the best idea.
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You don’t have to dig too deeply into the archive of dystopian science fiction to uncover the horror that intelligent machines might unleash. The Matrix and The Terminator are probably the most well-known examples of self-replicating, intelligent machines attempting to enslave or destroy humanity in the process of building a brave new digital world.
The prospect of artificially intelligent machines creating other artificially intelligent machines took a big step forward in 2017. However, we’re far from the runaway technological singularity futurists are predicting by mid-century or earlier, let alone murderous cyborgs or AI avatar assassins.
The first big boost this year came from Google. The tech giant announced it was developing automated machine learning (AutoML), writing algorithms that can do some of the heavy lifting by identifying the right neural networks for a specific job. Now researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), using the most powerful supercomputer in the US, have developed an AI system that can generate neural networks as good if not better than any developed by a human in less than a day.
It can take months for the brainiest, best-paid data scientists to develop deep learning software, which sends data through a complex web of mathematical algorithms. The system is modeled after the human brain and known as an artificial neural network. Even Google’s AutoML took weeks to design a superior image recognition system, one of the more standard operations for AI systems today.
Of course, Google Brain project engineers only had access to 800 graphic processing units (GPUs), a type of computer hardware that works especially well for deep learning. Nvidia, which pioneered the development of GPUs, is considered the gold standard in today’s AI hardware architecture. Titan, the supercomputer at ORNL, boasts more than 18,000 GPUs.
The ORNL research team’s algorithm, called MENNDL for Multinode Evolutionary Neural Networks for Deep Learning, isn’t designed to create AI systems that cull cute cat photos from the internet. Instead, MENNDL is a tool for testing and training thousands of potential neural networks to work on unique science problems.
That requires a different approach from the Google and Facebook AI platforms of the world, notes Steven Young, a postdoctoral research associate at ORNL who is on the team that designed MENNDL.
“We’ve discovered that those [neural networks] are very often not the optimal network for a lot of our problems, because our data, while it can be thought of as images, is different,” he explains to Singularity Hub. “These images, and the problems, have very different characteristics from object detection.”
AI for Science
One application of the technology involved a particle physics experiment at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Fermilab researchers are interested in understanding neutrinos, high-energy subatomic particles that rarely interact with normal matter but could be a key to understanding the early formation of the universe. One Fermilab experiment involves taking a sort of “snapshot” of neutrino interactions.
The team wanted the help of an AI system that could analyze and classify Fermilab’s detector data. MENNDL evaluated 500,000 neural networks in 24 hours. Its final solution proved superior to custom models developed by human scientists.
In another case involving a collaboration with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, MENNDL improved the error rate of a human-designed algorithm for identifying mitochondria inside 3D electron microscopy images of brain tissue by 30 percent.
“We are able to do better than humans in a fraction of the time at designing networks for these sort of very different datasets that we’re interested in,” Young says.
What makes MENNDL particularly adept is its ability to define the best or most optimal hyperparameters—the key variables—to tackle a particular dataset.
“You don’t always need a big, huge deep network. Sometimes you just need a small network with the right hyperparameters,” Young says.
A Virtual Data Scientist
That’s not dissimilar to the approach of a company called H20.ai, a startup out of Silicon Valley that uses open source machine learning platforms to “democratize” AI. It applies machine learning to create business solutions for Fortune 500 companies, including some of the world’s biggest banks and healthcare companies.
“Our software is more [about] pattern detection, let’s say anti-money laundering or fraud detection or which customer is most likely to churn,” Dr. Arno Candel, chief technology officer at H2O.ai, tells Singularity Hub. “And that kind of insight-generating software is what we call AI here.”
The company’s latest product, Driverless AI, promises to deliver the data scientist equivalent of a chessmaster to its customers (the company claims several such grandmasters in its employ and advisory board). In other words, the system can analyze a raw dataset and, like MENNDL, automatically identify what features should be included in the computer model to make the most of the data based on the best “chess moves” of its grandmasters.
“So we’re using those algorithms, but we’re giving them the human insights from those data scientists, and we automate their thinking,” he explains. “So we created a virtual data scientist that is relentless at trying these ideas.”
Inside the Black Box
Not unlike how the human brain reaches a conclusion, it’s not always possible to understand how a machine, despite being designed by humans, reaches its own solutions. The lack of transparency is often referred to as the AI “black box.” Experts like Young say we can learn something about the evolutionary process of machine learning by generating millions of neural networks and seeing what works well and what doesn’t.
“You’re never going to be able to completely explain what happened, but maybe we can better explain it than we currently can today,” Young says.
Transparency is built into the “thought process” of each particular model generated by Driverless AI, according to Candel.
The computer even explains itself to the user in plain English at each decision point. There is also real-time feedback that allows users to prioritize features, or parameters, to see how the changes improve the accuracy of the model. For example, the system may include data from people in the same zip code as it creates a model to describe customer turnover.
“That’s one of the advantages of our automatic feature engineering: it’s basically mimicking human thinking,” Candel says. “It’s not just neural nets that magically come up with some kind of number, but we’re trying to make it statistically significant.”
Much digital ink has been spilled over the dearth of skilled data scientists, so automating certain design aspects for developing artificial neural networks makes sense. Experts agree that automation alone won’t solve that particular problem. However, it will free computer scientists to tackle more difficult issues, such as parsing the inherent biases that exist within the data used by machine learning today.
“I think the world has an opportunity to focus more on the meaning of things and not on the laborious tasks of just fitting a model and finding the best features to make that model,” Candel notes. “By automating, we are pushing the burden back for the data scientists to actually do something more meaningful, which is think about the problem and see how you can address it differently to make an even bigger impact.”
The team at ORNL expects it can also make bigger impacts beginning next year when the lab’s next supercomputer, Summit, comes online. While Summit will boast only 4,600 nodes, it will sport the latest and greatest GPU technology from Nvidia and CPUs from IBM. That means it will deliver more than five times the computational performance of Titan, the world’s fifth-most powerful supercomputer today.
“We’ll be able to look at much larger problems on Summit than we were able to with Titan and hopefully get to a solution much faster,” Young says.
It’s all in a day’s work.
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The field of artificial intelligence goes back a long way, but many consider it was officially born when a group of scientists at Dartmouth College got together for a summer, back in 1956. Computers had, over the last few decades, come on in incredible leaps and bounds; they could now perform calculations far faster than humans. Optimism, given the incredible progress that had been made, was rational. Genius computer scientist Alan Turing had already mooted the idea of thinking machines just a few years before. The scientists had a fairly simple idea: intelligence is, after all, just a mathematical process. The human brain was a type of machine. Pick apart that process, and you can make a machine simulate it.
The problem didn’t seem too hard: the Dartmouth scientists wrote, “We think that a significant advance can be made in one or more of these problems if a carefully selected group of scientists work on it together for a summer.” This research proposal, by the way, contains one of the earliest uses of the term artificial intelligence. They had a number of ideas—maybe simulating the human brain’s pattern of neurons could work and teaching machines the abstract rules of human language would be important.
The scientists were optimistic, and their efforts were rewarded. Before too long, they had computer programs that seemed to understand human language and could solve algebra problems. People were confidently predicting there would be a human-level intelligent machine built within, oh, let’s say, the next twenty years.
It’s fitting that the industry of predicting when we’d have human-level intelligent AI was born at around the same time as the AI industry itself. In fact, it goes all the way back to Turing’s first paper on “thinking machines,” where he predicted that the Turing Test—machines that could convince humans they were human—would be passed in 50 years, by 2000. Nowadays, of course, people are still predicting it will happen within the next 20 years, perhaps most famously Ray Kurzweil. There are so many different surveys of experts and analyses that you almost wonder if AI researchers aren’t tempted to come up with an auto reply: “I’ve already predicted what your question will be, and no, I can’t really predict that.”
The issue with trying to predict the exact date of human-level AI is that we don’t know how far is left to go. This is unlike Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law, the doubling of processing power roughly every couple of years, makes a very concrete prediction about a very specific phenomenon. We understand roughly how to get there—improved engineering of silicon wafers—and we know we’re not at the fundamental limits of our current approach (at least, not until you’re trying to work on chips at the atomic scale). You cannot say the same about artificial intelligence.
Stuart Armstrong’s survey looked for trends in these predictions. Specifically, there were two major cognitive biases he was looking for. The first was the idea that AI experts predict true AI will arrive (and make them immortal) conveniently just before they’d be due to die. This is the “Rapture of the Nerds” criticism people have leveled at Kurzweil—his predictions are motivated by fear of death, desire for immortality, and are fundamentally irrational. The ability to create a superintelligence is taken as an article of faith. There are also criticisms by people working in the AI field who know first-hand the frustrations and limitations of today’s AI.
The second was the idea that people always pick a time span of 15 to 20 years. That’s enough to convince people they’re working on something that could prove revolutionary very soon (people are less impressed by efforts that will lead to tangible results centuries down the line), but not enough for you to be embarrassingly proved wrong. Of the two, Armstrong found more evidence for the second one—people were perfectly happy to predict AI after they died, although most didn’t, but there was a clear bias towards “15–20 years from now” in predictions throughout history.
Armstrong points out that, if you want to assess the validity of a specific prediction, there are plenty of parameters you can look at. For example, the idea that human-level intelligence will be developed by simulating the human brain does at least give you a clear pathway that allows you to assess progress. Every time we get a more detailed map of the brain, or successfully simulate another part of it, we can tell that we are progressing towards this eventual goal, which will presumably end in human-level AI. We may not be 20 years away on that path, but at least you can scientifically evaluate the progress.
Compare this to those that say AI, or else consciousness, will “emerge” if a network is sufficiently complex, given enough processing power. This might be how we imagine human intelligence and consciousness emerged during evolution—although evolution had billions of years, not just decades. The issue with this is that we have no empirical evidence: we have never seen consciousness manifest itself out of a complex network. Not only do we not know if this is possible, we cannot know how far away we are from reaching this, as we can’t even measure progress along the way.
There is an immense difficulty in understanding which tasks are hard, which has continued from the birth of AI to the present day. Just look at that original research proposal, where understanding human language, randomness and creativity, and self-improvement are all mentioned in the same breath. We have great natural language processing, but do our computers understand what they’re processing? We have AI that can randomly vary to be “creative,” but is it creative? Exponential self-improvement of the kind the singularity often relies on seems far away.
We also struggle to understand what’s meant by intelligence. For example, AI experts consistently underestimated the ability of AI to play Go. Many thought, in 2015, it would take until 2027. In the end, it took two years, not twelve. But does that mean AI is any closer to being able to write the Great American Novel, say? Does it mean it’s any closer to conceptually understanding the world around it? Does it mean that it’s any closer to human-level intelligence? That’s not necessarily clear.
Not Human, But Smarter Than Humans
But perhaps we’ve been looking at the wrong problem. For example, the Turing test has not yet been passed in the sense that AI cannot convince people it’s human in conversation; but of course the calculating ability, and perhaps soon the ability to perform other tasks like pattern recognition and driving cars, far exceed human levels. As “weak” AI algorithms make more decisions, and Internet of Things evangelists and tech optimists seek to find more ways to feed more data into more algorithms, the impact on society from this “artificial intelligence” can only grow.
It may be that we don’t yet have the mechanism for human-level intelligence, but it’s also true that we don’t know how far we can go with the current generation of algorithms. Those scary surveys that state automation will disrupt society and change it in fundamental ways don’t rely on nearly as many assumptions about some nebulous superintelligence.
Then there are those that point out we should be worried about AI for other reasons. Just because we can’t say for sure if human-level AI will arrive this century, or never, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t prepare for the possibility that the optimistic predictors could be correct. We need to ensure that human values are programmed into these algorithms, so that they understand the value of human life and can act in “moral, responsible” ways.
Phil Torres, at the Project for Future Human Flourishing, expressed it well in an interview with me. He points out that if we suddenly decided, as a society, that we had to solve the problem of morality—determine what was right and wrong and feed it into a machine—in the next twenty years…would we even be able to do it?
So, we should take predictions with a grain of salt. Remember, it turned out the problems the AI pioneers foresaw were far more complicated than they anticipated. The same could be true today. At the same time, we cannot be unprepared. We should understand the risks and take our precautions. When those scientists met in Dartmouth in 1956, they had no idea of the vast, foggy terrain before them. Sixty years later, we still don’t know how much further there is to go, or how far we can go. But we’re going somewhere.
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The first time Dr. Blake Richards heard about deep learning, he was convinced that he wasn’t just looking at a technique that would revolutionize artificial intelligence. He also knew he was looking at something fundamental about the human brain.
That was the early 2000s, and Richards was taking a course with Dr. Geoff Hinton at the University of Toronto. Hinton, a pioneer architect of the algorithm that would later take the world by storm, was offering an introductory course on his learning method inspired by the human brain.
The key words here are “inspired by.” Despite Richards’ conviction, the odds were stacked against him. The human brain, as it happens, seems to lack a critical function that’s programmed into deep learning algorithms. On the surface, the algorithms were violating basic biological facts already proven by neuroscientists.
But what if, superficial differences aside, deep learning and the brain are actually compatible?
Now, in a new study published in eLife, Richards, working with DeepMind, proposed a new algorithm based on the biological structure of neurons in the neocortex. Also known as the cortex, this outermost region of the brain is home to higher cognitive functions such as reasoning, prediction, and flexible thought.
The team networked their artificial neurons together into a multi-layered network and challenged it with a classic computer vision task—identifying hand-written numbers.
The new algorithm performed well. But the kicker is that it analyzed the learning examples in a way that’s characteristic of deep learning algorithms, even though it was completely based on the brain’s fundamental biology.
“Deep learning is possible in a biological framework,” concludes the team.
Because the model is only a computer simulation at this point, Richards hopes to pass the baton to experimental neuroscientists, who could actively test whether the algorithm operates in an actual brain.
If so, the data could then be passed back to computer scientists to work out the next generation of massively parallel and low-energy algorithms to power our machines.
It’s a first step towards merging the two fields back into a “virtuous circle” of discovery and innovation.
The blame game
While you’ve probably heard of deep learning’s recent wins against humans in the game of Go, you might not know the nitty-gritty behind the algorithm’s operations.
In a nutshell, deep learning relies on an artificial neural network with virtual “neurons.” Like a towering skyscraper, the network is structured into hierarchies: lower-level neurons process aspects of an input—for example, a horizontal or vertical stroke that eventually forms the number four—whereas higher-level neurons extract more abstract aspects of the number four.
To teach the network, you give it examples of what you’re looking for. The signal propagates forward in the network (like climbing up a building), where each neuron works to fish out something fundamental about the number four.
Like children trying to learn a skill the first time, initially the network doesn’t do so well. It spits out what it thinks a universal number four should look like—think a Picasso-esque rendition.
But here’s where the learning occurs: the algorithm compares the output with the ideal output, and computes the difference between the two (dubbed “error”). This error is then “backpropagated” throughout the entire network, telling each neuron: hey, this is how far off you were, so try adjusting your computation closer to the ideal.
Millions of examples and tweakings later, the network inches closer to the desired output and becomes highly proficient at the trained task.
This error signal is crucial for learning. Without efficient “backprop,” the network doesn’t know which of its neurons are off kilter. By assigning blame, the AI can better itself.
The brain does this too. How? We have no clue.
What’s clear, though, is that the deep learning solution doesn’t work.
Backprop is a pretty needy function. It requires a very specific infrastructure for it to work as expected.
For one, each neuron in the network has to receive the error feedback. But in the brain, neurons are only connected to a few downstream partners (if that). For backprop to work in the brain, early-level neurons need to be able to receive information from billions of connections in their downstream circuits—a biological impossibility.
And while certain deep learning algorithms adapt a more local form of backprop— essentially between neurons—it requires their connection forwards and backwards to be symmetric. This hardly ever occurs in the brain’s synapses.
More recent algorithms adapt a slightly different strategy, in that they implement a separate feedback pathway that helps the neurons to figure out errors locally. While it’s more biologically plausible, the brain doesn’t have a separate computational network dedicated to the blame game.
What it does have are neurons with intricate structures, unlike the uniform “balls” that are currently applied in deep learning.
The team took inspiration from pyramidal cells that populate the human cortex.
“Most of these neurons are shaped like trees, with ‘roots’ deep in the brain and ‘branches’ close to the surface,” says Richards. “What’s interesting is that these roots receive a different set of inputs than the branches that are way up at the top of the tree.”
This is an illustration of a multi-compartment neural network model for deep learning. Left: Reconstruction of pyramidal neurons from mouse primary visual cortex. Right: Illustration of simplified pyramidal neuron models. Image Credit: CIFAR
Curiously, the structure of neurons often turn out be “just right” for efficiently cracking a computational problem. Take the processing of sensations: the bottoms of pyramidal neurons are right smack where they need to be to receive sensory input, whereas the tops are conveniently placed to transmit feedback errors.
Could this intricate structure be evolution’s solution to channeling the error signal?
The team set up a multi-layered neural network based on previous algorithms. But rather than having uniform neurons, they gave those in middle layers—sandwiched between the input and output—compartments, just like real neurons.
When trained with hand-written digits, the algorithm performed much better than a single-layered network, despite lacking a way to perform classical backprop. The cell-like structure itself was sufficient to assign error: the error signals at one end of the neuron are naturally kept separate from input at the other end.
Then, at the right moment, the neuron brings both sources of information together to find the best solution.
There’s some biological evidence for this: neuroscientists have long known that the neuron’s input branches perform local computations, which can be integrated with signals that propagate backwards from the so-called output branch.
However, we don’t yet know if this is the brain’s way of dealing blame—a question that Richards urges neuroscientists to test out.
What’s more, the network parsed the problem in a way eerily similar to traditional deep learning algorithms: it took advantage of its multi-layered structure to extract progressively more abstract “ideas” about each number.
“[This is] the hallmark of deep learning,” the authors explain.
The Deep Learning Brain
Without doubt, there will be more twists and turns to the story as computer scientists incorporate more biological details into AI algorithms.
One aspect that Richards and team are already eyeing is a top-down predictive function, in which signals from higher levels directly influence how lower levels respond to input.
Feedback from upper levels doesn’t just provide error signals; it could also be nudging lower processing neurons towards a “better” activity pattern in real-time, says Richards.
The network doesn’t yet outperform other non-biologically derived (but “brain-inspired”) deep networks. But that’s not the point.
“Deep learning has had a huge impact on AI, but, to date, its impact on neuroscience has been limited,” the authors say.
Now neuroscientists have a lead they could experimentally test: that the structure of neurons underlie nature’s own deep learning algorithm.
“What we might see in the next decade or so is a real virtuous cycle of research between neuroscience and AI, where neuroscience discoveries help us to develop new AI and AI can help us interpret and understand our experimental data in neuroscience,” says Richards.
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I don’t have to open the doors of AImotive’s white 2015 Prius to see that it’s not your average car. This particular Prius has been christened El Capitan, the name written below the rear doors, and two small cameras are mounted on top of the car. Bundles of wire snake out from them, as well as from the two additional cameras on the car’s hood and trunk.
Inside is where things really get interesting, though. The trunk holds a computer the size of a microwave, and a large monitor covers the passenger glove compartment and dashboard. The center console has three switches labeled “Allowed,” “Error,” and “Active.”
Budapest-based AImotive is working to provide scalable self-driving technology alongside big players like Waymo and Uber in the autonomous vehicle world. On a highway test ride with CEO Laszlo Kishonti near the company’s office in Mountain View, California, I got a glimpse of just how complex that world is.
Camera-Based Feedback System
AImotive’s approach to autonomous driving is a little different from that of some of the best-known systems. For starters, they’re using cameras, not lidar, as primary sensors. “The traffic system is visual and the cost of cameras is low,” Kishonti said. “A lidar can recognize when there are people near the car, but a camera can differentiate between, say, an elderly person and a child. Lidar’s resolution isn’t high enough to recognize the subtle differences of urban driving.”
Image Credit: AImotive
The company’s aiDrive software uses data from the camera sensors to feed information to its algorithms for hierarchical decision-making, grouped under four concurrent activities: recognition, location, motion, and control.
Kishonti pointed out that lidar has already gotten more cost-efficient, and will only continue to do so.
“Ten years ago, lidar was best because there wasn’t enough processing power to do all the calculations by AI. But the cost of running AI is decreasing,” he said. “In our approach, computer vision and AI processing are key, and for safety, we’ll have fallback sensors like radar or lidar.”
aiDrive currently runs on Nvidia chips, which Kishonti noted were originally designed for graphics, and are not terribly efficient given how power-hungry they are. “We’re planning to substitute lower-cost, lower-energy chips in the next six months,” he said.
Testing in Virtual Reality
Waymo recently announced its fleet has now driven four million miles autonomously. That’s a lot of miles, and hard to compete with. But AImotive isn’t trying to compete, at least not by logging more real-life test miles. Instead, the company is doing 90 percent of its testing in virtual reality. “This is what truly differentiates us from competitors,” Kishonti said.
He outlined the three main benefits of VR testing: it can simulate scenarios too dangerous for the real world (such as hitting something), too costly (not every company has Waymo’s funds to run hundreds of cars on real roads), or too time-consuming (like waiting for rain, snow, or other weather conditions to occur naturally and repeatedly).
“Real-world traffic testing is very skewed towards the boring miles,” he said. “What we want to do is test all the cases that are hard to solve.”
On a screen that looked not unlike multiple games of Mario Kart, he showed me the simulator. Cartoon cars cruised down winding streets, outfitted with all the real-world surroundings: people, trees, signs, other cars. As I watched, a furry kangaroo suddenly hopped across one screen. “Volvo had an issue in Australia,” Kishonti explained. “A kangaroo’s movement is different than other animals since it hops instead of running.” Talk about cases that are hard to solve.
AImotive is currently testing around 1,000 simulated scenarios every night, with a steadily-rising curve of successful tests. These scenarios are broken down into features, and the car’s behavior around those features fed into a neural network. As the algorithms learn more features, the level of complexity the vehicles can handle goes up.
On the Road
After Kishonti and his colleagues filled me in on the details of their product, it was time to test it out. A safety driver sat in the driver’s seat, a computer operator in the passenger seat, and Kishonti and I in back. The driver maintained full control of the car until we merged onto the highway. Then he flicked the “Allowed” switch, his copilot pressed the “Active” switch, and he took his hands off the wheel.
What happened next, you ask?
A few things. El Capitan was going exactly the speed limit—65 miles per hour—which meant all the other cars were passing us. When a car merged in front of us or cut us off, El Cap braked accordingly (if a little abruptly). The monitor displayed the feed from each of the car’s cameras, plus multiple data fields and a simulation where a blue line marked the center of the lane, measured by the cameras tracking the lane markings on either side.
I noticed El Cap wobbling out of our lane a bit, but it wasn’t until two things happened in a row that I felt a little nervous: first we went under a bridge, then a truck pulled up next to us, both bridge and truck casting a complete shadow over our car. At that point El Cap lost it, and we swerved haphazardly to the right, narrowly missing the truck’s rear wheels. The safety driver grabbed the steering wheel and took back control of the car.
What happened, Kishonti explained, was that the shadows made it hard for the car’s cameras to see the lane markings. This was a new scenario the algorithm hadn’t previously encountered. If we’d only gone under a bridge or only been next to the truck for a second, El Cap may not have had so much trouble, but the two events happening in a row really threw the car for a loop—almost literally.
“This is a new scenario we’ll add to our testing,” Kishonti said. He added that another way for the algorithm to handle this type of scenario, rather than basing its speed and positioning on the lane markings, is to mimic nearby cars. “The human eye would see that other cars are still moving at the same speed, even if it can’t see details of the road,” he said.
After another brief—and thankfully uneventful—hands-off cruise down the highway, the safety driver took over, exited the highway, and drove us back to the office.
Driving into the Future
I climbed out of the car feeling amazed not only that self-driving cars are possible, but that driving is possible at all. I squint when driving into a tunnel, swerve to avoid hitting a stray squirrel, and brake gradually at stop signs—all without consciously thinking to do so. On top of learning to steer, brake, and accelerate, self-driving software has to incorporate our brains’ and bodies’ unconscious (but crucial) reactions, like our pupils dilating to let in more light so we can see in a tunnel.
Despite all the progress of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and computing power, I have a wholly renewed appreciation for the thing that’s been in charge of driving up till now: the human brain.
Kishonti seemed to feel similarly. “I don’t think autonomous vehicles in the near future will be better than the best drivers,” he said. “But they’ll be better than the average driver. What we want to achieve is safe, good-quality driving for everyone, with scalability.”
AImotive is currently working with American tech firms and with car and truck manufacturers in Europe, China, and Japan.
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