Boston Dynamics Can Solve Autonomous Vehicles Biggest Problem
The Boston Dynamics robots are successors to Robby the Robot and they are not cute and often just a bit worrying to see in action.
Visions of robot uprisings, SkyNet and Terminators aside, these robots are astounding and can fill many roles that will complement humans or protect them. The US Navy announced SAFFIR, their firefighting robot prototype in 2015. The idea being SAFFIR can go into enclosed, smoke filled spaces aboard ships and fight fires instead of risking sailors.
Big Dog or the LS3 was a DARPA robot designed to carry heavy loads into the field, accompanying soldiers or marines.
We have military applications of cutting-edge robotics and yes, these robots make a lot of people feel uncomfortable but, military technology (when not weaponized) often migrates into the civilian market. How can these robots play a meaningful role in civvy street?
What’s the problem?
Yesterday, I posted about the first autonomous vehicle related fatality to occur and how technological disruption without ethical exploration of impact could be our Frankenstein’s Monster. In a related Facebook discussion with friends it occurred to me that calling the phase of releasing these vehicles onto city streets for “testing”, albeit with human monitors is optimistic at best. That said, I have found it very hard to find details online about the end-to-end testing methodology employed. The one source I did find was the California DMV site regulations for testing autonomous vehicles.
I came away with several big questions:
Besides questions there are some assumptions:
Stages of testing: one can safely assume that software is unit tested by developers and then the autonomous integrated systems are tested through simulators. What other stages of testing are there prior to testing in the real-world?
What is being tested: One can assume that the comprehensive list of features that allow an autonomous vehicle to function and interact in real-time are under test.
Test-cases: the different scenarios tested will range from functional tests, thru load and stress of the system into emergency scenarios.
Testing success: what is the pass / fail criteria for approving an autonomous vehicle to be released for general, real-world use? One assumes the tolerance for error is almost zero.
The Warptest POV
Autonomous vehicles certainly fit the description of technological disruption and their impact on the real world can be wondrous or catastrophic. A lot of which, depends on the depth at which they are tested.
Whilst I am certain crash-test dummies were used as in any automotive testing, this does not deliver the level of testing that IMHO is needed. Boston Dynamics has the solution. The testing stage before real-world testing where human drivers in other cars, bikes, trucks and pedestrians are all involved would be to build a testing environment that replicates the real world and to mitigate the risk to human testers, use Boston Dynamics robots to be the test-data used to run the different test cases.
The test-cases would have to provide optimal coverage of every conceivable scenario, but that data is waiting to be analyzed and derived by a good data scientist. Every recorded traffic mishap, accident, crime or fatality is a test-case that needs testing and this can be done in a testing environment that can replicate all weather conditions (and other variables). Another layer of testing will have to be the behavioral algorithms that allow autonomous vehicles to make critical decisions. If a vehicle is placed in a no-win scenario where either a passenger or pedestrian is sure of being hurt or killed, does the vehicle respond as expected and what is expected behavior? Is it based on learning or something else?
The good news is Boston Robotics or someone like them can provide a critical facet to this testing so that spontaneous pedestrian actions can be tested without risk.
Image via YouTube: with thanks to Terminator: Judgement Day.
Instead of being creepy robots that make some think we are one step away from SkyNet, these robots can be our path to safer autonomous vehicles.
Let me know if you think Boston Dynamics can solve this, if these robots creep you out or if you are building your post-SkyNet bunker after seeing the videos above.