David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
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Google's Self-Driving Cars Are Ridiculously Safe

After 1.8 million miles, Google's self-driving car has been involved in only 13 accidents — all of which were caused by the other car. 

A few weeks ago, I attended a wedding just outside Richmond, Virginia, 100 miles from my home in Washington D.C., so I needed to rent a car for the weekend. There's no feeling quite like getting back behind a steering wheel after time away from driving. It's a liberating feeling, a taste of freedom, the ability to go anywhere. Wawas suddenly become accessible. Hamburgers taste better from the drive-thru. That ecstasy you feel is control; it's a small bit of autonomy in a world where we too often feel like objects acted-on rather than autonomous actors.

It's this sort of feeling that fuels many people's anxiety (and, in some cases, enmity) toward the idea of self-driving cars. One example: That weekend trip to Richmond also reintroduced me to the cultural affliction that is sports talk radio. One of the topics on this sports show, curiously enough, was whether the hosts and their callers would feel comfortable in an autonomous vehicle. The overwhelming number of voices dripping from my speakers put on a top-notch demonstration of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, the cognitive bias wherein people who don't know what they're talking about assume their expertise on a subject is much higher than it is. The common refrain that afternoon was something akin to: "I wouldn't feel safe trusting my life to a computer."

While that's an understandable take — remember all that talk above about freedom and autonomy? — such reasoning leads to a dead end when you consider our current bevy of empirical evidence. Consider the sterling track record of their fleet of automated prototypes, most of which have the ability to switch between human driver and computer driver. Google spokeswoman Jacquelyn Miller (via Cyrus Farivar of Ars Technica) recently made the following announcement regarding her company's fleet of self-driving death machines:

"We just got rear-ended again yesterday while stopped at a stoplight in Mountain View. That's two incidents just in the last week where a driver rear-ended us while we were completely stopped at a light! So that brings the tally to 13 minor fender-benders in more than 1.8 million miles of autonomous and manual driving — and still, not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident.”

Farivar's piece focuses mostly on Google's announcement that they've updated their self-driving car site with accident reports after calls for more transparency. At this point, they're just logs for whenever someone rear-ends the car. Several of Farivar's commenters aptly note that the accident referenced above likely would not have happened had both cars been self-driving.

At some point, this technology will become so advanced that lawmakers will be forced to debate whether or not to outlaw manual driving, according to Tesla CEO Elon Musk. There's an argument for it: Deaths and injuries from auto accidents are bad. They would decrease drastically if human error were to cease to be a liability. Plus, you can't drive drunk if you can't actually drive. The counterargument against this perspective, outside of the rah-rah "freedom" appeals, would necessarily center on security. Could hackers take control of your car while it's on the road?

It's important to nudge Google and other self-driving carmakers toward transparency. The evidence at the moment indicates the technology is moving along nicely, but that doesn't mean we ought to do away with our steering wheels quite yet.

It's as important to shed preconceived notions of what driving means to us, because despite the great feeling I get when I'm in control, I have to be aware that I'm always one human error away from causing myself or someone else great bodily harm. That's why we have to be prepared to be unselfish if this technology improves to a level where a switch to full automation (at least on public roads) is in the best interest of society.

If you don't know much about autonomous cars, but want to learn, Brad Templeton goes over all the basics in the video below:

Photo credit: GLENN CHAPMAN/AFP/Getty Images 

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
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Tuberculosis vaccine shows promise in reducing COVID deaths

A new study suggests that a century-old vaccine may reduce the severity of coronavirus cases.

Closeup of a BCG vaccination.

Credit: Kekyalyaynen.
Surprising Science
  • A new study finds a country's BCG vaccination is linked to its COVID-19 mortality rate.
  • More BCG vaccinations is linked to fewer severe coronavirus cases.
  • The study is preliminary and more research is needed to support the findings.
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.


Does conscious AI deserve rights?

If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

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