The cars, they are a coming!

It appears that the driverless cars are becoming a hot commodity! Sadly, it appears that the US is lagging behind China and Japan dramatically. But, it appears that many of the designs are following the Drone methodology instead, letting the vehicles be piloted by a human “in the loop.” “Our idea is not that a car should totally replace the driver, but that it will give the driver freedom,” Yu Kai, Baidu’s top AI researcher, told the South China Morning Post. (Wan, A. and Nam, W, 4/20/2015) “So the car is intelligent enough to operate by itself, like a horse, and make decisions depending on different road situations.” 

That equine analogy has been used before, notably by design guru Don Norman in a keynote speech last summer. (Ross, 12/30/2014) “Loose reins: the horse is in control and takes you home. Tight reins are to force the horse to do things that are uncomfortable—but not dangerous.”  After a hundred years of automotive progress, we’re still measuring the cars in relation to horses! 🙂

Baidu’s self-driving car project is on track, if you’ll pardon my pun, to hit Beijing highways by end of the year, just as the company’s CEO had suggested.

Ross, P. (12/30/2014). Europe’s Smart Highway will Shepherd Cars from rotterdam to vienna. IEEE Spectrum. Retrieved from

Wan, A. and Nan, W. (4/20/2015). Baidu’s Yu Kai talks autonomous cars, artificial intelligence and the future of search. South China Morning Post. Retrieved from

But FIRST, these messages

I went to a FIRST Robotics competition in Denver recently. This was the first time I went where there were high school students so the robots were a little more complex. I usually get to judge at the FIRST Lego competitions which are for elementary and middle school students.

My first thought was “my goodness”, these are much more complex tasks (and much more expensive robots)! But after watching the competition for a while, I began to notice some issues with the approaches the different teams attempted. The process is that the teams get a six week window to design and build their machines before sending them to the competition. Since design and building often takes most of the six weeks, most robot handlers/drivers do not get to work with the machine much before arriving at the competition.

The strategy of the teams seemed to vary quite a bit. Some teams went after the one “difficult” and therefore point-laden task and did nothing the rest of the round. Other teams went after one or more of the simple tasks and really focused their robot design on that task.
For example, at this competition, the “difficult” task was to claim trash cans from a no man’s land in the center of the competition area. To be successful, the robot must be able to reach across the no man’s land and pull the trashcan back to the working area for the other robots to stack. Only one team really tried to do this and it was clear they hadn’t really tested their “hooking” process. Their robot had to be very carefully set up and aimed. It rolled forward about a foot then dropped at arm down with the intent of grabbing the can. If it missed, and it always did, the team just parked there and waited for the round to end. Since their design clearly didn’t work, they basically sat out the rest of the team competitions. Surely building a mock-up of their arm and dropping it like the robot would have would have helped. And this bit of testing might have helped them score points, even if they didn’t have a full robot to test with.

The other big task was to stack totes. Some of the designs for how to do this were amazing! Several of the teams used a tall robot to pick up 4 individual totes then set them down already in a stacked pattern instead of picking up individual totes and attempting to stack them on an existing stack of totes. It was a cleaver idea and I was surprised several of the teams used this solution

So why do I bring this all up, except, of course, that robots are cool? That’s certainly a part of it! But seriously, my early thought was that it takes a huge number of people to reset the robots each round. And these are not technically robots by my definition. More importantly, testing of the robots should not be handled in such a cavalear fashion!
FIRST Lego League, which I have participated in and which is designed for younger students, has an army of judges who interact with each team, trying to figure out what the team strategy was or encourage the teams to do better. On the other hand, each round at this competition was based on three teams, an “Alliance” though they seemed to be arbitrarily grouped, fighting three other teams. The Alliance that won best two out of three moved on to the next round. An Alliance was made up of three school teams containing what appeared to be 4-10 students and their instructor/sponsor. In between rounds a battalion of judges/resetters came out and reset the arena for the next round. Students came out and reset the robots themselves. As you can see in the video, it’s a fairly quick process but it required a swarm of folks to pull off. Perhaps the death knell for American Industry “peopled” by humans is a little further away than we have been led to believe?

Even more important to me, these machines were not robots, per se, as I would define them. The machines had a 20 second window at the beginning of the round to do something autonomous. The rest of the round, the machines were handled like RC vehicles. While drone makers would argue that RC vehicles are robots, I do not. In practice, many of the machines sat idle during the autonomous portion or positioned themselves for the RC portion of the round. This is understandable in that the build deadline is very short and the strategy for earning points is very important. Complex tasks or automated tasks are worth more but there are a lot of simple tasks that can be done. But again, it implies that humans will remain “in the loop” for the fore-seeable future.

A 6-week build time is very ambitious, even for college students! I understand that the FIRST folks don’t want to interfere with the school year, per se, but I believe we are setting the kids up for failure in the long run. This process is much like our “code-like-hell” process in IT where we sling code into the real world based on deadlines not completeness, knowing we can patch it later. Surely we don’t want to teach people to ignore testing? Surely we don’t want to reinforce the idea that any idea is a good one? With something like 60% of all software projects failing to meet customer expectations, do we really want to showcase this behavior? Can you imagine only having six weeks to practice [insert collegiate sport here] before a competition amongst rival schools? A one day event where all the athletes come together, for good or ill?

Actually, I want to compare robotics to athletics but that’s a post for another day! In the meantime, let me get off my soapbox, for now.