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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It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?
- Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
- Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
- Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.
The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.
- Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
- Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
- Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.
Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.
Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.
"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."
Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.
Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.
The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.
That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.
Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.
Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.
First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.
Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.
More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."
This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.
"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."
The Oedipal complex
The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.
That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.
Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.
But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.
Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.
An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.
The Freudian slip
Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."
"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."
In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.
According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.
"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.
Freud's case studies
Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."
It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.
For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.
Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.
Sigmund Freud and his legacy
Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)
Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.
If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.
When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).
Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.
But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.
With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.
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