Category Archives: General

The Productive Commute

One of the key reasons people want self-driving vehicles is to make their daily commute less tedious. But the possibilities go much further than simply allowing you to take your hands off the steering wheel so you can text your friends on the way to work.

At a conference in Bavaria recently, I asked the question, “Where would you most like to spend the time between getting up in the morning and arriving at the office?” For me, that place would need to have a charger for my laptop, a table, comfortable chairs, and a really good coffee machine, ideally filled with my choice of coffee beans. My coffee mug would be in the cupboard, and there would be fresh milk in the fridge.

Yes, I basically want a self-driving cafe.

The closest image I could find online was this; the front of a large and luxurious motorhome:

Now, I might not need something this large and luxurious just for my own personal commute, but you get the idea: this is nothing like my current car; it’s more like a room of my house that just happens to move around.

People often predict that autonomous vehicles will mean the end of car ownership; if you’re just a passenger in the vehicle, why not treat it like a taxi, and summon it when you need it? No doubt that will happen in some situations, if your main use for a car is the occasional trip to a restaurant, or the shopping mall, or the airport. But for a daily commute, very few people choose a taxi at present, and I think that’s unlikely to change much if the driver happens to be silicon-based instead of carbon-based.

But if we ever get something like the self-driving breakfast bar I describe above, it will, I think, be an even more personal space than the cars of today: it’ll grind my coffee beans, play my music, have the right adapter for my laptop. It may even have my choice of curtains at the windows. It will be more tailored to the various needs I have while using it, than is a traditional car, which is tailored primarily to the single task of guiding it down the road.

In short, so many more personal preferences may be involved in choosing and using such a vehicle that I think — for the purpose of commuting, at least — rumours of the death of car ownership may have been somewhat exaggerated.

The least autonomous cars?

Since my last post was about the most high-tech cars around, let’s go to the other extreme (well, almost), and look at the earlier days of automotive user interfaces. This, for example, is a handy guide for drivers of the Model T Ford, showing how you should adjust the throttle, and advance the ignition, based on what you want to achieve.

Kids these days have probably never seen a manual choke, let alone a manual ignition advance! (If you want to know what an ignition advance lever is and why you might need one, Wikipedia will tell you). Now, to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever had to use one either, but I’ve ridden in cars where the driver did.

I’ve never actually ridden in a Model T, though I’ve sat in one, in Henry Ford’s garage, no less. But if you should ever find yourself in the driving seat, don’t assume that the three pedals and the handbrake-like lever will do what you expect.

Here’s a nice demonstration to show you the basics:

Testing Turing?

Stephen Pulman gave the Wheeler Lecture in our department this afternoon; an excellent discussion about whether current machine-learning techniques would ever allow us to build a machine that passes the Turing Test.

It made me wonder about the value of a variation on the theme, which I propose to call the Meta-Turing-Test.

It which would work like this:

Can we build a machine which, given a Turing Test scenario, can work out whether the responses are from a human or a machine, even when a human can’t?

Reviewing Amazon reviews

One of the best things about shopping online is the ability to view other purchasers’ reviews. But it is also remarkable just how foolish some people can be when reviewing a product.

I’m talking about the reviews that give something 5 stars, with the explanation: “I haven’t opened this yet but I’m sure my son will love it”.

Or the ones that slam a product with 1 star: “Arrived a day late and the postman left it in the wrong place.” So you want to punish your postman by telling people this isn’t a good camera, say? How does that work?

Discussing this with my friend Mac in the pub last night, we came up with a simple solution: When writing an Amazon review, you should be asked for separate ratings, as you are with TripAdvisor. They might be:

  • Purchasing, delivery, packaging and support
  • Quality of the product
  • Value for money

The first one should then become part of the rating of the supplier, not the product.

You could just have one other value, but splitting it into two like this might make people think a bit more, and allow you to take your price sensitivity into account when making a decision.

And someone who gives everything 1 star is probably just grumpy and their opinion should be weighted accordingly!

Then you could make more informed decisions like “This seems good, but I don’t want to buy it here”, or “I know this is isn’t great, but I just want something cheap”.

What do you think? Please rate this blog post under the following three categories…

It’s not all bad in Zuckerland…

I left Facebook a little over a year ago, and hadn’t really felt any desire to return even before the recent round of news stories.

This NYT piece by Kathleen O’Brien gives an interesting and more positive viewpoint, though. But where are the ‘lifeboats’?

Is it time to revisit some of those other social networks on which I’ve had accounts in the last few years that never quite made it? I wonder how many of them are still in business…

Seen it before?

Here’s a handy site: TinEye. It’s a reverse image search.

If you’ve got an image on your machine and don’t know where it came from, or you find it online and wonder where the original lives or who uploaded it first, this can help.

I learned about this from Terence Eden, who has a great example on his blog showing how it can be useful…

Personalised echo chambers

John’s column in the Observer this morning is a good one. Extract:

This doesn’t mean that YouTube’s owner (Google) is hell-bent on furthering extremism of all stripes. It isn’t. All it’s interested in is maximising advertising revenues. And underpinning the implicit logic of its recommender algorithms is evidence that people are drawn to content that is more extreme than what they started with – or perhaps to incendiary content in general.

So YouTube (like Facebook) is caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, it’s embarrassed by the way in which it is being exploited by unsavoury actors (and also possibly worried about the longer-term threat of regulation); on the other hand, its bottom line is improved by increasing “user engagement” – ie, keeping people glued to YouTube.

The great moral dilemma of the age

In the case of doubt over a particular item, is it a greater sin to recycle that which we ought not to recycle, or to leave unrecycled that which we ought to recycle?

The Reasonable Man

Until a few hours ago, I knew nothing about Jordan Peterson, but picking up on the attention he’s been getting, I watched his interview in Channel 4. It’s fabulous stuff.

Cathy Newman, the interviewer, is so desperate to be offended, to be the victim, that she keeps trying to put words into his mouth. It’s almost as if she’s trying to be a caricature of everything that’s bad about modern reporting, and modern political correctness, but she’s apparently serious.

And with astonishing patience, for half an hour, Peterson just keeps coming back, again and again, with facts, with logic, with reason, with intelligence, with sanity.

I once found myself at an event being followed around by a woman who adopted much the same approach, though she knew nothing about me and we had only just met. But she had clearly come with the intention of finding a man to be insulted by, and I was her victim for the day.

I wish I had handled the situation as expertly as Peterson does; in the end, I just had to leave the event early, because when people are so desperate to be offended, I sometimes get the overwhelming mischievous urge to give them what they want, even though I might misrepresent my opinions just for the fun of winding them up! I thought it better to depart before she reached that point.

The follow-up interview with Joe Rogan is worth watching, too.

I don’t know anything about him other than this, I’m not sure whether I’d agree with him on other things. I haven’t read his book.

But I certainly plan to do so now.

A suggestion for 2018

Here’s my thought for the year:

It’s much more important to read things with which you disagree than to read things with which you agree.

Merry XYZmas

If, like me, you have been pondering linear algebra on a Christmas afternoon (and, frankly, who hasn’t?), or if you know anybody who is learning it for the first time, then I highly recommend Grant Sanderson’s YouTube channel, 3Blue1Brown where he makes all kinds of mathematical ideas easier to understand through some clever visualisations.

In particular, his Essence of linear algebra course is a wonderful presentation of the basics. Do you have vague memories of matrix multiplication and of phrases like ‘determinant’ and ‘eigenvector’ but have no idea why you learned them or what they did? Then this is the resource for you. Not only is it good revision, but it explains them in a different way from the way you might have learned them originally, which can help you get a better understanding than you had before.

Oh, and if linear algebra isn’t your idea of a fun way to spend Christmas, don’t worry. There’s Essence of Calculus as well.

Head case

Prof. Guglielmo Tamburrini posed an interesting question in a talk this afternoon. Imagine a self-driving car faced with the option of having to hit one of two motorcyclists. One is wearing a helmet, and the other isn’t. Should it aim for the helmet-wearing guy, to reduce the risk of loss of life?

Philosophers must be having a field day with this stuff. They’re being invited to comment on the latest in sexy new technologies in a way that doesn’t happen very often. (Douglas Adams fans may remember Majikthise & Vroomfondel.) Much of the ethical discussion relating to autonomous vehicles, though, boils down to variations on the Trolley Problem, and the key thing about this — the thing that makes it an interesting ethical conundrum in the first place — is that there is no right answer. If deployment of the railways had required the Trolley Problem to be solved first, we would still be using horse-drawn carts.

The question is not, ‘What should a car do in this situation?’, but ‘How do we get to a point where society is comfortable that we’ve had enough discussion about this?’ Or, more precisely, ‘How do we get to a point where a large enough fraction of society is comfortable, that a party proposing to allow such vehicles on our roads would be elected to government?’

Many technologies, historically, have first been used, and then later have had restrictions placed upon them to reduce the risks which are discovered, with experience, to be the key ones: motorcyclists needing helmets, cars needing seat-belts, pilots needing licences, smokers needing to go outside.

What I presume will happen here is that societies who are less risk-averse will go ahead with greater degrees of autonomous driving, and the more conservative nations will watch with interest until they can amass enough vicarious experience to follow in their footsteps.

I imagine, however, that in 50 years’ time, we’ll still be debating the motorcycle question raised above. By then, though, it will be even more hypothetical, since we’ll have long-since banned motorcycles.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser