Why the best self-driving cars may come from Russia, not California

The weather in most parts of Russia forces drivers to face harsh conditions — snow, mud, and poor visibility. It's in this environment that Cognitive Technologies saw an opportunity.

Terrible traffic, prayer-inducing merges, dangerous road conditions, and drivers who hazard sudden, scream-worthy maneuvers, all add to Moscow's commuting woes. Sadly, this is what 98 percent of the world's roads are like, and why one Russian company, Cognitive Technologies Group, may come out ahead in the race to birth the self-driving car.


President and founder of the group Olga Uskova, is skeptical of Silicon Valley's sunny projections of when autonomous vehicles will go mainstream. The reason? As she told The Guardian, there are too many variables in most places to look out for. In Moscow for instance, “The environment is ever-changing: the snow has covered traffic signs; it's raining on your windshield, the sun is blocking you. Our people train using these kinds of data." Note that the most well-known autonomous prototypes, the Financial Times recently reported, have trouble navigating through snow. Uskova assures that her model doesn't have that problem.

Cognitive Tech. began in 1993 when two of its founders developed the world's 1st computer chess master, Kaissa. Besides this, they've sold software to the likes of Intel and Yandex. In 2014, the company launched its autonomous vehicle program— Cognitive Pilot (C-Pilot), Russia's first and largest player in the nascent autonomous vehicle market.

A Nissan X-Trail equipped with a C-Pilot system. Credit: Cognitive Technologies.

Their secret isn't any specialized software–like Tesla's Autopilot or hardware–like Mobileye's patented microchip. They took a different approach. Instead, Uskova and her team taught an A.I. program the intricacies of driving in Moscow. They did this by exposing it to 100,000 dashcam videos and other footage collected by Moscow State University.

Uskova and her team put together a neural network using the footage, which they say allows their vehicle to better maneuver around the mean streets of Moscow. By utilizing run-of-the-mill computer hardware, their incarnation becomes less expensive than competitor versions and easier to upgrade.

Cognitive technologies hopes to put out a level four autonomous vehicle by the end of 2019. That's not all. They've partnered with Russian truck maker Kamaz to develop a self-driving tractor trailer by 2020, and Uskova and colleagues plan to have an autonomous combine harvester farm ready by 2024.

And their car prototype? So far, they've rigged out a Nissan X-Trail with a C-Pilot system. It can recognize three dozen road signs with almost 100% accuracy, as well as stop, accelerate, and heed traffic lights. Now, the company is setting up two US offices, reaching out to English speaking media, and seeking additional funding. It also demoed C-Pilot at the latest Consumer Electronics Show (CES), held every January in Las Vegas. One snag—visa issues due to a heating up of tensions between the US and Russia, have made it difficult for Cognitive Technologies to gain a solid foothold in the US.

Credit: Cognitive technologies.

So how does their system work? Recently, I asked Uskova via email. First, high resolution cameras, imaging radar, and a bevy of onboard sensors collect data, which is fed into one of four operating systems: the observer module—which monitors the car's surroundings, the geographer module—which pinpoints the location of the vehicle, the navigator module—which finds the quickest route, and the machinist module—which handles the physical driving of the vehicle. All of this raw data is processed and then blended together by a deep learning neural network, provided by an energy-efficient onboard processor.

Similar to a biological brain, it absorbs and processes the information and then decides how to proceed. Most self-driving cars use LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), which works much like radar but instead of radio waves, uses beams of infrared light. In other words, it relies on invisible lasers to sense the environment. I asked what type of system C-pilot uses.

“Our main sensors are radar and cameras, not LIDAR," Uskova said. “We believe that radar is the future of autonomous driving, as it is the most appropriate sensor for this technology. Radar is significantly more reliable in bad weather (snow, rain, fog). Our radar constructs a dynamic 3D projection at a distance of 150-200 meters (492-656 ft.). When the weather gets worse—the range falls to just 100 m (328 ft.)." Radar is also more cost-effective.

According to Uskova, the autonomous vehicle market is just beginning to firm up, with major players taking positions in certain niches. Cognitive technologies believes their advantage comes in sensor technology. “The human eye has a much higher resolution in its central part. When we try to zoom-in and look closer at something—we use foveal vision. The same method is used in C-Pilot's Virtual Tunnel tech. Its algorithm tracks all movements and focuses attention on the main risk zones," she wrote.

President of Cognitive Technologies Olga Uskova. Credit: Getty Images.

Uskova also said:

We also believe that within the next 10 years, as processor capacities grow, the resolution of sensors will also increase significantly. Now the cameras for autonomous vehicles have a resolution of 2-5 megapixels, and the resolution of the human eye can be estimated at 100 megapixels. And for better detection of small objects and animals, the resolution of the onboard cameras should grow. Now, our system can recognize the average size animal at a distance of up to 30 meters (98 ft.).

I asked what makes her system different from those being developed by Uber, Waymo (Google), other Silicon Valley companies, and the big automakers, Ford in particular. To date, there are 27 companies working on autonomous vehicles. “At the moment, we are the best in the world in the field of road scene perception and detection," she said. “We have 19 unique patents and inventions. 22 million dollars have been invested in the product and we have real industrial practice in the most severe weather conditions."

To witness the C-Pilot system in action, click here.

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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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