Why the best self-driving cars may not come from the well-kept freeways of 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, road signs that are all but impossible to read, dangerous road conditions, and drivers who hazard sudden, scream-worthy maneuvers, all add to Moscow’s commuting woes. Sadly, this is what 98% 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, she told The Guardian was that 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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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.