Getting a car to drive itself is undoubtedly the most ambitious commercial application of artificial intelligence (AI). The research project was kicked into life by the 2004 DARPA Urban Challenge and then taken up as a business proposition, first by Alphabet, and later by the big automakers.
The industry-wide effort vacuumed up many of the world’s best roboticists and set rival companies on a multibillion-dollar acquisitions spree. It also launched a cycle of hype that paraded ever more ambitious deadlines—the most famous of which, made by Alphabet’s Sergei Brin in 2012, was that full self-driving technology would be ready by 2017. Those deadlines have all been missed.
Much of the exhilaration was inspired by the seeming miracles that a new kind of AI—deep learning—was achieving in playing games, recognizing faces, and transliterating voices. Deep learning excels at tasks involving pattern recognition—a particular challenge for older, rule-based AI techniques. However, it now seems that deep learning will not soon master the other intellectual challenges of driving, such as anticipating what human beings might do.
Among the roboticists who have been involved from the start are Gill Pratt, the chief executive officer of Toyota Research Institute (TRI) , formerly a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA); and Wolfram Burgard, vice president of automated driving technology for TRI and president of the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society. The duo spoke with IEEE Spectrum’s Philip Ross at TRI’s offices in Palo Alto, Calif.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
IEEE Spectrum: How does AI handle the various parts of the self-driving problem?
Gill Pratt: There are three different systems that you need in a self-driving car: It starts with perception, then goes to prediction, and then goes to planning.
The one that by far is the most problematic is prediction. It’s not prediction of other automated cars, because if all cars were automated, this problem would be much more simple. How do you predict what a human being is going to do? That’s difficult for deep learning to learn right now.
Spectrum: Can you offset the weakness in prediction with stupendous perception?
Wolfram Burgard: Yes, that is what car companies basically do. A camera provides semantics, lidar provides distance, radar provides velocities. But all this comes with problems, because sometimes you look at the world from different positions—that’s called parallax. Sometimes you don’t know which range estimate that pixel belongs to. That might make the decision complicated as to whether that is a person painted onto the side of a truck or whether this is an actual person.
With deep learning there is this promise that if you throw enough data at these networks, it’s going to work—finally. But it turns out that the amount of data that you need for self-driving cars is far larger than we expected.
Spectrum: When do deep learning’s limitations become apparent?
Pratt: The way to think about deep learning is that it’s really high-performance pattern matching. You have input and output as training pairs; you say this image should lead to that result; and you just do that again and again, for hundreds of thousands, millions of times.
Here’s the logical fallacy that I think most people have fallen prey to with deep learning. A lot of what we do with our brains can be thought of as pattern matching: “Oh, I see this stop sign, so I should stop.” But it doesn’t mean all of intelligence can be done through pattern matching.
For instance, when I’m driving and I see a mother holding the hand of a child on a corner and trying to cross the street, I am pretty sure she’s not going to cross at a red light and jaywalk. I know from my experience being a human being that mothers and children don’t act that way. On the other hand, say there are two teenagers—with blue hair, skateboards, and a disaffected look. Are they going to jaywalk? I look at that, you look at that, and instantly the probability in your mind that they’ll jaywalk is much higher than for the mother holding the hand of the child. It’s not that you’ve seen 100,000 cases of young kids—it’s that you understand what it is to be either a teenager or a mother holding a child’s hand.
You can try to fake that kind of intelligence. If you specifically train a neural network on data like that, you could pattern-match that. But you’d have to know to do it.
Spectrum: So you’re saying that when you substitute pattern recognition for reasoning, the marginal return on the investment falls off pretty fast?
Pratt: That’s absolutely right. Unfortunately, we don’t have the ability to make an AI that thinks yet, so we don’t know what to do. We keep trying to use the deep-learning hammer to hammer more nails—we say, well, let’s just pour more data in, and more data.
Spectrum: Couldn’t you train the deep-learning system to recognize teenagers and to assign the category a high propensity for jaywalking?
Burgard: People have been doing that. But it turns out that these heuristics you come up with are extremely hard to tweak. Also, sometimes the heuristics are contradictory, which makes it extremely hard to design these expert systems based on rules. This is where the strength of the deep-learning methods lies, because somehow they encode a way to see a pattern where, for example, here’s a feature and over there is another feature; it’s about the sheer number of parameters you have available.
Our separation of the components of a self-driving AI eases the development and even the learning of the AI systems. Some companies even think about using deep learning to do the job fully, from end to end, not having any structure at all—basically, directly mapping perceptions to actions.
Pratt: There are companies that have tried it; Nvidia certainly tried it. In general, it’s been found not to work very well. So people divide the problem into blocks, where we understand what each block does, and we try to make each block work well. Some of the blocks end up more like the expert system we talked about, where we actually code things, and other blocks end up more like machine learning.
Spectrum: So, what’s next—what new technique is in the offing?
Pratt: If I knew the answer, we’d do it. [Laughter]
Spectrum: You said that if all cars on the road were automated, the problem would be easy. Why not “geofence” the heck out of the self-driving problem, and have areas where only self-driving cars are allowed?
Pratt: That means putting in constraints on the operational design domain. This includes the geography—where the car should be automated; it includes the weather, it includes the level of traffic, it includes speed. If the car is going slow enough to avoid colliding without risking a rear-end collision, that makes the problem much easier. Street trolleys operate with traffic still in some parts of the world, and that seems to work out just fine. People learn that this vehicle may stop at unexpected times. My suspicion is, that is where we’ll see Level 4 autonomy in cities. It’s going to be in the lower speeds.
That’s a sweet spot in the operational design domain, without a doubt. There’s another one at high speed on a highway, because access to highways is so limited. But unfortunately there is still the occasional debris that suddenly crosses the road, and the weather gets bad. The classic example is when somebody irresponsibly ties a mattress to the top of a car and it falls off; what are you going to do? And the answer is that terrible things happen—even for humans.
Spectrum: Learning by doing worked for the first cars, the first planes, the first steam boilers, and even the first nuclear reactors. We ran risks then; why not now?
Pratt: It has to do with the times. During the era where cars took off, all kinds of accidents happened, women died in childbirth, all sorts of diseases ran rampant; the expected characteristic of life was that bad things happened. Expectations have changed. Now the chance of dying in some freak accident is quite low because of all the learning that’s gone on, the OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] rules, UL code for electrical appliances, all the building standards, medicine.
Furthermore—and we think this is very important—we believe that empathy for a human being at the wheel is a significant factor in public acceptance when there is a crash. We don’t know this for sure—it’s a speculation on our part. I’ve driven, I’ve had close calls; that could have been me that made that mistake and had that wreck. I think people are more tolerant when somebody else makes mistakes, and there’s an awful crash. In the case of an automated car, we worry that that empathy won’t be there.
Spectrum: Toyota is building a system called Guardian to back up the driver, and a more futuristic system called Chauffeur, to replace the driver. How can Chauffeur ever succeed? It has to be better than a human plus Guardian!
Pratt: In the discussions we’ve had with others in this field, we’ve talked about that a lot. What is the standard? Is it a person in a basic car? Or is it a person with a car that has active safety systems in it? And what will people think is good enough?
These systems will never be perfect—there will always be some accidents, and no matter how hard we try there will still be occasions where there will be some fatalities. At what threshold are people willing to say that’s okay?
Spectrum: You were among the first top researchers to warn against hyping self-driving technology. What did you see that so many other players did not?
Pratt: First, in my own case, during my time at DARPA I worked on robotics, not cars. So I was somewhat of an outsider. I was looking at it from a fresh perspective, and that helps a lot.
Second, [when I joined Toyota in 2015] I was joining a company that is very careful—even though we have made some giant leaps—with the Prius hybrid drive system as an example. Even so, in general, the philosophy at Toyota is kaizen—making the cars incrementally better every single day. That care meant that I was tasked with thinking very deeply about this thing before making prognostications.
And the final part: It was a new job for me. The first night after I signed the contract I felt this incredible responsibility. I couldn’t sleep that whole night, so I started to multiply out the numbers, all using a factor of 10. How many cars do we have on the road? Cars on average last 10 years, though ours last 20, but let’s call it 10. They travel on an order of 10,000 miles per year. Multiply all that out and you get 10 to the 10th miles per year for our fleet on Planet Earth, a really big number. I asked myself, if all of those cars had automated drive, how good would they have to be to tolerate the number of crashes that would still occur? And the answer was so incredibly good that I knew it would take a long time. That was five years ago.
Burgard: We are now in the age of deep learning, and we don’t know what will come after. We are still making progress with existing techniques, and they look very promising. But the gradient is not as steep as it was a few years ago.
Pratt: There isn’t anything that’s telling us that it can’t be done; I should be very clear on that. Just because we don’t know how to do it doesn’t mean it can’t be done.