What Bitcoin tells you about the likelihood of self-driving cars succeeding

As the Bitcoin bubble neared its zenith in 2017, the internet filled up with dire predictions that “crypto-mining” would melt the world’s power grids.

Whole countries’ energy consumption levels became yardsticks for Bitcoin’s thirst for power. Ireland, Hungary, New Zealand – take your pick. Call it the Ohms Race: so-called miners frantically pumped electricity into processors in the hope of flushing out that elusive $100,000 cryptic coin. Or $10 cryptic coin, depending on which side of the peak they were on when it turned up.

And although Bitcoin brownout alarmism quickly died down, the episode should ring alarm bells in the autonomous vehicle community. Because the amount of power needed to mine virtual coins doesn’t even represent an amuse-bouche in relation to the stonking torrents of amps required to make self-driving cars work.

This was explained in the FT yesterday, with all the insouciance that the house journal of neo-liberal techno-grandiosity could manage. (FT – Driverless cars: mapping the trouble ahead)

You see, for AVs the map is the territory. For the tens of thousands of dollars-worth of on-board sensing gubbins to work, it has to be fed a massively-detailed 3D map of the vehicle’s surroundings. Everything that doesn’t move, from trees to signs to sandwich boards to rubbish bins, needs to be there for the vehicle to compare with what it ‘sees’ at any given microsecond.

Data-wise, these maps are colossal. Gigabytes to describe a modest stretch of uninterrupted blacktop in the middle of nowhere. God-knows-what-abytes for urban streetscapes. There’s no way of streaming so much information to the vehicle fast enough when it’s travelling so it must be loaded aboard on hard drives and carried around everywhere the vehicle goes.

There’s brave talk of perfecting AVs’ artificial intelligence so they can interpret their way along streets using simpler data. But for the foreseeable future they’ll need these 3D mega-maps. And presumably they’ll be restricted to operating within the area of mega-map they can practically carry around.

3D electronic maps may be new but the territory we’re moving into with them isn’t. Joseph Tainter covers it in The Collapse of Complex Societies: he shows that societies collapse when their investments in social complexity and their energy subsidies reach a point of diminishing marginal returns.

Theoretically, AVs are the answer to several problems Namely, ordinary cars’ huge redundancy (idle 95% of their lives),  congestion, and the cost of accidents caused by human mistakes that machine-driven cars supposedly wouldn’t make. The most happy-clappy proponents of AVs enthuse over their potential to completely eliminate jams and accidents while slicing 60% off the cost of motoring by replacing inefficient car ownership with 24/7 ‘ridership’.

If AVs were simply ordinary cars but with added sensors and a clever brain to do the driving, these pipe-dreams might be valid. But they’re not. It turns out that for AVs to work as intended we’re going to have to build nothing less than a 3D virtual copy of most of the surface of the planet within five or 10 yards of a road.

Creating, storing, updating and transmitting that data will require a huge network of servers – plus fall-backs up the wazoo to ensure 100% uptime. Between the servers and the vehicles will be a layer of energy-gobbling supercomputers performing the gazillions of calculations per second required to coordinate traffic and feed individual vehicles the data they need to make their own decisions.

AV developers and their would-be customers simply assume the necessary power will be there. And this at a time when the cost and complexity of building a single power station is proving a stretch even for an advanced economy like the UK.

There’s every reason to think that Level 5 vehicle automation will be as near-impossible to achieve as commercial nuclear fusion. The torrents of capital and talent going into AV development are pouring into, if not a dead end, a neither-here-nor-there scenario of partial automation and fiendishly complex lash-ups aimed at allowing semi-AVs and  conventional cars to coexist.

It’s a question of whether the game is worth the candle. That originally referred to a game of cards where the stakes were less than the price of the candle burned to light the play.

Will the outcome of the billions poured into self-driving cars be worth it? No. Not when you find out you’ll have to build and maintain a massively expensive 3D facsimile of the world before any AV can even think of operating in the real world like an ordinary car.

Should we stop and do something more useful, or at least redefine our goals for AVs? Of course.

But we won’t. Humans simply aren’t smart enough.

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The WYSIWYG President

What Donald Trump’s supporters find as pleasing as his opponents find shocking is one single fact. What you see is what you get.

WYSIWYG-DT

Not a polished marionette, like Barrack Obama. Or an unpolished marionette, like George W. Bush.

Many say Mr Trump’s ‘unpresidential’ qualities make him unfit for office. Others consider the fact that he doesn’t fit the mould is the perfect antidote for the totemic sham that the office of POTUS became in the late 20th and early 21st century.

The Deep State and political perma-elite lost their grip on the glove-puppet show in 2016, revealing the true reflection of US political ‘power’ to be the Man Without a Mask.

Did President Eisenhower, who was a WYSIWYG outsider president in completely different sense, imagine that an eventual outcome of the military-industrial complex might be a White House fit only to be fought-over between candidates people know from the telly?

Answers on a postcard. Or better make that a tweet.

 

The beautiful look of civilisation gone mad

While I was casting around for a peg to hang this New Year rumination on, an email drew my attention to the lovely barrier island of Longboat Key off the west coast of Florida.

Longboat Key is 10 miles long and mostly only a few hundred yards wide. Today every inch of it looks like this:

Longboat.jpg

This highly ‘aspirational’ environment is what you get when an ingenious species breaks into hundreds of millions of years of stored sunlight and then burns through it in a two-century splurge. A hundred years ago, Longboat Key was still more or less what it had been for thousands of years: a few dozen square miles of sandy scrub. A handful of families lived at the northern end, fishing and growing guavas and other fruit. Only when the discovery of the East Texas and Gulf oilfields kicked off America’s unprecedented expansion of the mid-20th century did the Key begin to develop into the richly-manicured fairyland you see today.

Even in the 1960s, its human population was only just over 1,000 folk. It’s grown six-fold since then, although summer and winter visitors swell the total considerably. And of course, Longboat Key is just one relatively insignificant example of the mass conversion of the Earth’s surface into what’s really, if you look at it objectively, a vast fossil fuel-drenched playground.

Maybe 5% of the world’s human population has a realistic chance of travelling to somewhere like the Key on a holiday. Most people sincerely hope that ‘progress’ will eventually allow everyone in the world to enjoy the good life epitomised by the quiet, safe streets, neat houses and well-tended vegetation of energy-intensive developments like the Key.

Doesn’t sound much to ask does it? But the further you go down the biophysical pyramid supporting our apparently harmless lifestyles, the more contradictions you encounter. In the globalised version of industrial civilisation that’s been built in the few decades since I was born, everywhere is interconnected to everywhere else. Picture postcard Cotswold villages and breezy seaside resorts keep their hands fastidiously clean by outsourcing manufacturing and waste disposal to the other side of the planet – though not for much longer – but we’re no less involved in the human exploitation, habitat destruction, degradation of life-support systems and accelerating extinction rates that go with our ‘natural desire’ to ‘better ourselves.’

I find the contradiction at the heart of all this really hard to deal with. For the more we build out our industrial civilisation, the faster we approach the appoint where it starts to collapse rapidly in the face of impossible complexity combined with steady diminution of the net energy needed to ‘solve’ the complexity problem. This is nothing new. It’s happened to every human civilisation in history – though nothing like on the scale ours will face.

Why I’m worrying, I can’t say. It’s safe to say most of Longboat Key will look like this sooner or later:

But the chances are that it won’t be in my lifetime. Perhaps in another century or two, a dozen families will again fish and farm amid the crumbling concrete remains on the Key. Although, given that its highest point is only about four metres above sea level, who’s to say climate change-driven events won’t completely erase the island.

Incidentally, the sad-looking place in the above pic was a thriving tennis resort for a few years. Over 40 years the spot went from unspoilt wildlife habitat, to 17-acre resort, to ruin. Now a developer is talking about spending a billion dollars to knock it all down and build another upscale playground for a tiny sliver of humanity. What a way to fritter away the last of mankind’s allocation of fossil sunlight.

Madness is doing the same thing over and over again hoping for a different result.

Self-driving cars are a stupidly-expensive distraction

As you know, QuadRanting is no fan of autonomous vehicles. It’s not just that they are infinitely more difficult to achieve than their over-excited fans would have you believe, it’s that no one has really come up with a convincing reason why we need them.

Of course, since self-driving cars (SDCs) are the greatest of techno-narcissism’s current grands projets, the requirement for something as dreary as a worthwhile raison d’etre for them is considered to be an irrelevance. They’re exciting and theoretically achievable so let’s pour billions of dollars into them!

In the same way that the word ‘blockchain’ magically enables unscrupulous outfits to relieve gullible fools of their money, any story involving ‘self-driving cars’ is fully guaranteed to gain wholly uncritical media coverage, even in outlets that should know better. So when we learned that fully-autonomous vehicles will be on the UK’s roads by 2021, it was no surprise to hear the news not from the lips of Ricky the Magic Pixie but from those of the Rt. Hon. Philip Hammond MP, Chancellor of the Exchequer.

You have to ask why the automotive industry – huge, highly regulated and quite responsible at the operational level, though not existentially – would want to play silly buggers in this way. The answer is that by and large it doesn’t.

There is a smidgen of truth in the idea that the big automakers fear they’ll be put out of business by Google and other tech giants flexing their artificial intelligence muscles. But the manufacturers know they have more pressing threats to their future to worry about than toy cars adorned with $100,000 dollars-worth of sensors that need to be connected 100% of the time to a multi-billion dollar IT infrastructure that itself is guaranteed to be ‘up’ 100% of the time. Yup, 99.99% won’t be good enough. Especially when even Chris Urmson, the former Chief Technical Officer of self-driving cars at Google, recently said it’ll be at least 30 years before anyone achieves a truly self-driving car. So 2050, Mr Hammond, not 2021.

Above all, motor manufacturers understand that even relatively minor moves (in comparison to putting a fully autonomous vehicle on the roads), like developing a new hybrid drivetrain, are immensely complex global undertakings that span international supply chains, multiple vehicle regulators, varied climates, traffic rules and highway design protocols sales channels, and so on. Agreeing something as seemingly insignificant as a global standard for an electronic interface that allows different components to talk to each other can take many years.

It’s obvious that a lot of people are mentally constructing castles on the sand in order to clutch at pies in the sky.

But something has caused Wired.com, hitherto one of the most shameless boosters of all things autonomous, to inject a note of realism into its discourse. Perhaps someone there had a butchers at the rising tide of SDC stories and thought, “Hmm. What does that remind me of?”

Hype-cycle

In Before Self-Driving Cars Become Real, They Face These Challenges, Wired quotes Bryan Salesky, who heads up Ford-backed autonomous vehicle company Argo AI, saying (emphasis added):

“Those who think fully self-driving vehicles will be ubiquitous on city streets months from now or even in a few years are not well connected to the state of the art or committed to the safe deployment of the technology.” Medium.com

Take note of the comment on safe deployment. Achieving Level 5 (total) automation will be incredibly difficult. From the Wired piece:

”Technology developers are coming to appreciate that the last 1 percent is harder than the first 99 percent,” says Karl Iagnemma, CEO of Nutonomy, a Boston-based self-driving car company acquired by automotive supplier Delphi this fall. “Compared to last 1 percent, the first 99 percent is a walk in the park.”

Do the math. He’s saying that when the SDC-ers get 99 percent of the way to Level 5, they’ll be less than half-way to actually putting the technology safely on the road. Unless the rate of development goes exponential, it will take decades to iron out the final bugs between Level 4 and Level 5. And while we’re at it, let’s mix-in the warning from Salesky, above: developers – or countries – that try to rush the process will kill people.

Wired calls Iagnemma a killjoy. Its piece concludes with the obligatory happy ending:

The good news is that there seems to be enough momentum to carry this new industry out of the trough and onto what Gartner calls the plateau of productivity. Not everyone who started the journey will make the climb. But those who do, battered and a bit bloody, may just find the cash up there is green, the robots good, and the view stupendous.

I suspect the phrase ‘battered and a bit bloody’ will sooner rather than later prove rather too literal as far as some passengers and bystanders are concerned. Expect it to come back to haunt Wired.

‘Stupendous’ looks misplaced as well. What the plateau delivers is well short of what peak hype promises. A Gartner curve adapted to SDCs might look like this:

Autonomous-Vehicle-Hype-cycle

I’m not sure we’ll exactly see a trough of disillusionment. People, especially in the media, are deeply wedded to the belief that everything is getting better and that technology can deliver all our dreams at the flick of a venture capitalist’s quiff. Unless or until there’s a global depression deep enough to scour right through the layers of hype, sheer techno-optimism will ensure the SDC-ers have sufficient Other People’s Money to burn.

Nevertheless, the climb up from reality setting in to the plateau of productivity will be a lot, lot longer than implied by the Gartner model. And the economic headwinds will be getting stronger all the way up. The market for any car, let alone a super whizz-bang expensive SDC, is shrinking along with the dwindling buying power of ordinary people.

Sounding somewhat desperate, one SDC start-up is aiming at retirement communities – clearly hoping that the pension ponzi doesn’t pop before its founders cash out. Another aims at disabled users. That’s a better idea, in that there’s actually a problem there that an SDC could be the solution to. But again, it’s a niche market that doesn’t justify the stratospheric cost of attaining Level 5. There are undoubtedly better and cheaper community-based solutions for disabled travellers.

All in all, SDCs are industrial civilisation’s equivalent of brilliant plumage in the animal kingdom or exotic blooms among plants. But unlike natural showing-off, which is developed to be sustainable over millennial timescales, SDCs are no more than hubristic adornments at the apex of a system that’s already running out of cheap energy and starting to drown in its own effluent.

When the history of the 21st century comes to be written, SDCs will undoubtedly feature on the list of Stupidly Expensive Diversions from Attending to Real Problems.

Russiagate, Truthism and the Big Lie

A lie silly story, repeated often enough, becomes a kind of truth. Hence the inescapable ‘truth’ that Vladimir Putin hacked the 2016 US election on behalf of Donald Trump.

You hear it every day in the right wing media. Never mind the unhealthily-close relationship between these outlets’ proprietors and the military wing of global corporate capital, which really, really needs to portray Russia as a scary bogeyman so it can justify its metastasising demands for bigger arms budgets.

You hear it in the left wing media. They can’t believe the voters rejected HC – as bought-and-paid-for a corporate tool as Obama but sadly lacking his eye- and ear-appeal – all by themselves. And that voters rejected, by extension, the cosmopolitan liberal elites’ peculiar brand of snowflakey, virtue-signalling identity politics.

What’s the word for a silly story that takes on a casual resemblance to a fact with the help of repetition? A ‘truthism’ perhaps. You know it’s happened when you hear, say, John Humphrys on the today programme say something like, “Well we now know that Russian interference in the US election apparently influenced the outcome.”

That’s how Truthism is done. The ‘now’ in “We now know that …” implies that solid evidence of Russian interference has been laid bare since the election – although nothing of any kind has actually been turned up barring a few Facebook ads from Russia-based accounts, which addressed issues not candidates and which almost nobody in the US even saw.

Similarly, while the word ‘apparently’ confers a tone of impartiality, it serves to reinforce the preceding Truthism (i.e. that Russian interference was substantial, not merely a silly story) by immediately shifting attention to whether it affected the election result.

”Like any orthodoxy worth its salt, the religion of the Russian hack depends not on evidence but on ex cathedra pronouncements on the part of authoritative institutions and their overlords.”
(LRB 4 January 2018)

What America really needs is a genuine Emperor’s New Clothes moment where some wholesome, freckled, toothy kid in a baseball cap pipes up: “Hey everyone, there ain’t no Russkis! We just ended up being given a choice between two utterly grotesque presidential candidates and we elected the simple-bad one when we were supposed to pick the smart-bad one!”

The next best thing would be for some publications on both sides of the political spectrum to start laying Russiagate to rest. In the UK, at least, the London Review of Books’ first issue of 2018 has deftly unpicked Russiagate in a piece entitled What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about Russian Hacking.

Russiagate Truthism is likely to prove counter-productive, not because it is propaganda but because it is bad propaganda. Even not-very-switched-on people don’t feel they’ve seen any proof of the interference. Despite being assiduously pushed by the mainstream media, Russiagate risks making the governments of the UK and US (do any other countries care about it?) look ridiculous.

Brexodus

All across our green and pleasant land, we hear, people are upping sticks and heading east. East to the lands of the rising sun. East where opportunity still knocks and trade flows freely. East to Paris. East to Bonn. East to Europe.

It’s Brexodus. People and companies leaving the UK because they believe that Bexit will make them uncompetitive or unwelcome here, or both. Or – to go by the examples given in Naked Capitalism’s latest report on the dire progress of Britain’s deluded Brexiteer negotiating team – it’s ‘Techsodus’.

Tech companies can’t find enough home-grown talent to grow themselves in places like London’s silicone roundabout – which I used to peel across on a motorcycle 30 years ago when it was still just dirty tarmac and fag butts. Smart IT euro-dudes have jumped at the chance to live in London and take the offered jobs. But Brexit will nix the UK as a worthwhile career option in a self-perpetuating spiral of work restrictions and departing employers. The euro-dudes can simply remain chez eux while ‘our’ jobs transfer across the channel to them.

Leavers argue that this is precisely the opportunity plucky Britannia needs. To forge a dynamic, sovereign, digital training sector to supply our own dynamic, sovereign, silicone industry. Well we could. But it will take three to five years to turn around. Why do pro-leavers think that employers – who can base their businesses anywhere in the world with electricity and broadband – are going to stay put and stagnate while they wait?

At least digital businesses have the advantage of mobility. What the clowns in charge of Brexit are threatening to let happen to UK motor manufacturing is truly frightening.