Thursday, October 11, 2012

Unknown Knowns

[Updated to fix some egregious writing errors.]

Recently, the WSJ's motoring correspondent, Dan Neil, made the case that we will cede control of our cars to the cloud sooner rather than later, and for the better. He starts by vividly demonstrating that a car can, in fact, pilot itself under demanding conditions:

The Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca is a 2.2-mile asphalt roller coaster plunging and soaring across California's tawny Monterey highlands. The most famous section, the Corkscrew, requires drivers storming up a long hill to slam the brakes and take a hard left into what seems to be thin air. The car goes momentarily weightless, and when the track materializes beneath you—always a pleasant surprise—it's going downhill like a ski jump—and, oh yeah, heading hard right.

Except that I wasn't really driving. While I was indeed in the driver's seat, my hands and feet were weirdly unoccupied.

The car was driving itself, digitally duplicating a lap driven earlier by a professional driver—a man now sitting on the pit wall, watching the car and me come and go. All I had to do was sit there, with the car dancing on the edge of control under me, manfully freaking out.

BMW's TrackTrainer—an experimental 330i sedan bristling with machine-vision equipment—uses GPS, track maps and telemetry recorded during a professional driver's model lap to negotiate a racecourse.

In Mr. Neil's view, these autonomous driving systems (ADSs) "have long since passed the point of mere driving competence to arrive at something like expert status."

Therefore, it is only a matter of time before we hand over the controls, and the autonomy that implies, to these digital uberdrivers. After all, because ADSs will be able to predict rather than merely react, they would make the stop-and-go traffic jams a thing of the past. Highway carrying capacity will increase, because that same predictive ability will reduce following distances. Having pre-programmed the route, turbulence caused by lane changes will go away, and so will the need for almost all traffic control devices.

In contrast, human controlled vehicles will be outliers, the risk carriers. One of these days, we will be banned from driving on our own roads.

The danger will come not from auto-piloted vehicles but from the holdouts, those drivers who for whatever reason rely on the faulty, flimsy wetware between their ears. What will be normative? Should manually operated vehicles be the ones to give way? Or should autopilot cars (with special running lights) be especially deferential to their inferior human counterparts?

Despite being something of an gear head, I can see his point. But because I am a gear head, I find it disturbing that in some not too distant future, driving will be a lost skill. While that might seem an extreme conclusion, remember this: what was once taken for granted has already nearly vanished -- virtually no one under the age of 30 can drive a three pedaled car. That's a reduction of almost 100% within a couple generations.

Why? Because essentially no one among that group that makes almost all car buying decisions — women — enjoys telling the transmission what to do (full disclosure, both my cars are manuals). Similarly, hardly anyone views driving as any less a chore than vacuuming.

So we will, a few atavistic double-declutching stick rowers notwithstanding, happily cede the right of way to our digital overlords.

Left unanswered, though, is something of a conceptual problem. Granting that autonomously operated vehicles are the future, how do we get there from here?

There are two problems Mr. Neil doesn't address. First, AI should be re-branded as IDS: impenetrable digital stupidity. Despite decades of effort, as good as all things digital are at computation, they are completely sucktastic at learning.

That means ADSs are relying essentially on two things: vehicle positions and pre-programmed rules.

It is that last thing that is a bother. In driving, we know all sorts of "rules" — traffic rules, for instance. However, if asked how we drive, we couldn't fully articulate the process, because the are far more things we know about driving than we know we know (including how to juggle competing rules), and would even have a hard time articulating much of what we know we know.

Now, in the two dimensional driving space, perhaps that can be overcome to a sufficient degree. But then we get to another pothole: driver out-of-the-loop. This has been a perplexing problem as aircraft have become increasingly automated, to the point where (IMHO) most incidents and accidents are caused at least in part by pilot out-of-the-loop (e.g., AF447).

How can ADSs deal with unforeseen events outside their rule space, or when, for whatever reason, a car goes "off the reservation"? Obviously, by handing the controls back to the driver. Who may well be reading a book, or asleep, or …

So, I agree with Mr. Neil that ADSs will happen, but I doubt they will predominate in my lifetime, because these things only know what they have been told, which is less than what we need to tell them, and they are, and will remain, completely incapable of learning.

Some side notes:

I think fully APSs (autonomous piloting systems) are much further off. Operating in three dimensions is several orders of magnitude more difficult than driving, which means the problem of unknown knowns is worse. Further, going off the reservation will be both more likely, and consequential.

A couple personal examples. Very shorty after takeoff a couple years ago, the autothrust system pulled the power to idle without any warnings. Last year, on getting tight vectors to final, the flight management system turned the wrong way to intercept the instrument approach course. Absent in the loop pilots both those examples would have turned out very badly .

Another issue is complexity. The flight manuals for airplanes with flight management systems are roughly three times as heavy as for those who rely upon time honored, well worn, hand-tooled flying skills. That's one thing for pilots who are on the recieving end of extensive and expensive training. But what about those for whom having an iPhone in hand is to flirt with apoplexy (yes, TOSWIPIAW, I am looking at you)?