September 20, 2020

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Maybe Baby Yoda Ought To Be Adorned On The Hood Of Every Self-Driving Car

11 min read

Baby Yoda has taken the world by storm.

Headlines have blared that resistance is futile when trying to defy the mind-force allure of Baby Yoda, and indeed some exhort that Baby Yoda managed to break the internet.

Baby Yoda, love you must!

Meanwhile, Baby Yoda memes are seemingly throughout the universe, or at least universally being shared and adored.

Why do we find ourselves so impulsively agog over the emergence of Baby Yoda?

First, anything associated with Star Wars is obviously going to immediately have a leg up in gleaning widespread attention and interest.

That’s a given.

Secondly, by-and-large, anything that has an adorable baby-like look is bound to catch our gaze.

Third, humans also seem to have a natural affinity for facial recognition, which turns out to be potentially integral to the Baby Yoda phenomena.

Here’s what I mean.

In ways that have yet to be fully explained, we have an incredible capacity to scan around ourselves and spot any faces that might be nearby. Furthermore, once you spot a face, you tend to nearly immediately codify the face into your brain’s memory banks. At some later point in time, you can usually readily identify if you’ve seen that face before. Even causal and momentary glances at other people can produce this same amazingly eclectic recollection ability.

What does this all have to do with Baby Yoda?

If you take a studious glance at Baby Yoda, you’ll notice that this hand-crafted “baby” has quite large and innocent-looking eyes, the kind that causes us to immediately melt, which happens too when you see a young puppy with big eyes. That’s a smart way to design a baby-like toy or image, doing so in a manner that invokes our facial recognition mental engine and gets us inextricably engaged, whether we wish to do so, or we don’t.

In formal parlance, you have fallen for the standardized infant schema that we seem to be programmed to succumb to. Advertising and marketing have long leveraged this predisposition and likely further reinforced the innate capability, ratcheting up the ingrained part of our psyche to get attention to slick ads and boastful marketing materials, doing so via explicitly or sneakily including babies, and thus make a buck off our unstoppable push-button urges.

Kudos to the Baby Yoda creators that shrewdly enacted their own grand convergence.

The trifecta consists of a lovable looking baby character that is associated with the tremendously popular Star Wars tidal wave and that is crafted well enough to automatically invoke our innate snuggling response.

As an aside, in the field of AI and especially robotics, it is well-known that you need to walk a fine line between crafting something that looks human-like and yet doesn’t under-step and nor over-step what is portrayed as being humanish. A robot that looks extremely crude and mechanical is generally okay for humans to see and react to since right away people assess and categorize the robot as not a human and that it is only a robot. At the other extreme, a robot that looks nearly exactly like a human and if it seemingly acts like a human, we tend to find that acceptable, at least with respect to a willingness to interact with the robot and not instantly recoil at seeing it.

There’s a kind of valley in-between those two extremes, whereby there might be a robot that doesn’t look fully human and yet it doesn’t look fully like a robot per se and sits in a kind of purgatory that’s an untoward middle ground. For most people, they tend to have a sense of repulsion when seeing an in-between style of a robot, whereby the person reacts coldly or negatively to something that is a not-quite-a-robot and yet not-quite-a-human in appearance. The phrase for those types of muddled middle-ground robots and the reaction to them is known as the “uncanny valley.”

Any robot developer worth their salt knows that if their robot lands into the uncanny valley, it means that humans will have a difficult time interacting with the robot because in the back of their human minds the people are having an emotionally adverse reaction to the creation.

In short, a robot that’s residing in the uncanny valley is perceived as being eerie and usually unlikable.

Returning to Baby Yoda, if the shape and nature of the facial characteristics were changed to be more human-like, the odds are that it would be Baby Scary rather than the alluring Baby Yoda.

Anyway, as mentioned, the designers got things right and stayed out of the uncanny valley.

Speaking of robots, there’s a new kind of robot that is gradually emerging and appearing on our highways, byways, and neighborhood streets. It’s a robot that you’ve undoubtedly seen in videos and pictures and depending upon where you live might have witnessed this robot going down your street.

I’m referring to self-driving cars.

Most people are shocked to think of a self-driving car as a robot.

Generally, we consider a robot to be something that has mechanical arms, legs, etc. Well, even though a self-driving car doesn’t have mechanized arms, legs, and other human-like robotic appendages, it nonetheless can be classified as a kind of robot.

Here’s today’s interesting question: “How are people going to react to the widespread adoption of AI-based true self-driving cars, and can Baby Yoda somehow provide some insights about the matter?”

Yes, Baby Yoda can indeed be a help.

Let’s unpack the matter and see.

The Levels Of Self-Driving Cars

It is important to clarify what I mean when referring to AI-based true self-driving cars.

True self-driving cars are ones that the AI drives the car entirely on its own and there isn’t any human assistance during the driving task.

These driverless vehicles are considered a Level 4 and Level 5, while a car that requires a human driver to co-share the driving effort is usually considered at a Level 2 or Level 3. The cars that co-share the driving task are described as being semi-autonomous, and typically contain a variety of automated add-on’s that are referred to as ADAS (Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems).

There is not yet a true self-driving car at Level 5, which we don’t yet even know if this will be possible to achieve, and nor how long it will take to get there.

Meanwhile, the Level 4 efforts are gradually trying to get some traction by undergoing very narrow and selective public roadway trials, though there is controversy over whether this testing should be allowed per se (we are all life-or-death guinea pigs in an experiment taking place on our highways and byways, some point out).

Since semi-autonomous cars require a human driver, the adoption of those types of cars won’t be markedly different than driving conventional vehicles, so there’s not much new per se to cover about them on this topic (though, as you’ll see in a moment, the points next made are generally applicable).

For semi-autonomous cars, it is important that the public be forewarned about a disturbing aspect that’s been arising lately, namely that in spite of those human drivers that keep posting videos of themselves falling asleep at the wheel of a Level 2 or Level 3 car, we all need to avoid being misled into believing that the driver can take away their attention from the driving task while driving a semi-autonomous car.

You are the responsible party for the driving actions of the vehicle, regardless of how much automation might be tossed into a Level 2 or Level 3.

Self-Driving Cars And Baby Yoda

For Level 4 and Level 5 true self-driving vehicles, there won’t be a human driver involved in the driving task.

All occupants will be passengers.

The AI is doing the driving.

How does Baby Yoda get enmeshed into the topic of self-driving cars?

Lots of ways.

First, one of the looming problems for the widespread acceptance of true self-driving cars involves what I have coined “the head nod” problem (see the link here). With conventional cars, there is a human driver. As a pedestrian, and when trying to cross the street, you usually do a quick look at the driver of the oncoming car.

Ponder these life-or-death questions:

·        Does the driver see me?

·        Is the driver making eye contact or looking away?

·        Will the driver let me cross the street or is the driver intent on proceeding unabated?

·        If I make an outsized facial expression that suggests that I want to cross the street, will this persuade the driver to slow down and let me cross?

·        Has the driver shown a facial expression that indicates that they have granted me to cross, or perhaps have they expressed the opposite and are insisting that I shouldn’t cross in front of them?

There is quite a societal dance that occurs in the mere act of crossing the street. Studies show too that this delicate and somber ballet differs depending upon where you live, what your gender or race is, what the prevailing culture is, and a myriad of other factors are involved (see this link here).

Recall that I just mentioned that for a true self-driving car there isn’t a human driver.

In short, there isn’t anyone sitting in the driver’s seat. As such, for pedestrians, you have completely now lost the ability to do a head nod negotiation about crossing the street. Scarily, some people have “figured out” that they can readily win a game of chicken with some driverless cars, doing so by venturing into the street, dangerously so, and the AI system will come to a halt. Those impetuous pedestrians are playing a game that is much more hazardous than they realize (it’s called pranking, see my discussion here).

Yes, in theory, self-driving cars are going to give the right-of-way to pedestrians, but there are limits to this possibility. If you don’t time it just right, the AI system might not be able to stop the car in time to avoid hitting you. Also, you really have no immediate way to know that the AI system detected you, and thus, you are taking quite a chance by moving into the street.

How to solve this life-or-death problem that will become increasingly apparent once a sufficient adoption of self-driving cars occurs?

Many of the automakers and self-driving tech firms are exploring various means to put some kind of visual display on the exterior front portion of the self-driving car.

For example, maybe put large arrows and a red light that lights up to showcase whether the driverless car is going to come to a stop, and also indicates when it is going to make a left or right turn (this would be in addition to the usual turn-blinkers on a car, positioning the arrows up above the front windshield for increased visibility to pedestrians).

Another tryout involves having the headlights appear to be eyeballs, and those seem to shift left or right in their gaze, suggesting that the AI system has seen you and wants to let you know that you’ve been seen.

Generally, there are a slew of LED displays and similar devices that researchers are experimenting with, hopeful of landing on just the right way to communicate with pedestrians, and, by the way, also communicate with human drivers in other nearby cars that need to do a similar “head nod” communique with a self-driving vehicle.

Will people though pay attention to these visual cues?

Even if they do, it could become something that people gradually take for granted and no longer notice.

For those of you that have lived through the era of the addition of a third brake light on the back of our conventional cars, you probably know that at first implementation the new lights seem to really catch the eye of other drivers. Gradually, according to most studies, people have acclimated themselves to the third brake light and it has much less of an impact than originally envisioned (I’m not saying it has decayed to having no impact at all, only that it is less pronounced as being noticeable and serving to alert other drivers).

Okay, hold your breath for the next statement.

Alright, here’s a novel idea, namely let’s put a Baby Yoda on the hood of every true self-driving car.

Say what?

Your first reaction is that this would certainly be a boon for the Star Wars crew and their Baby Yoda creation. There are about 250+ million conventional cars in the United States alone, and if those are ultimately replaced by self-driving cars (though some believe we won’t need as many driverless cars as we have of conventional cars), it would mean that there would be perhaps 250 million Baby Yoda’s waving at us each and every day.

That’s a lot of Baby Yoda’s.

Maybe so, but at least we’d pay attention to self-driving cars.

Imagine a mechanical version of a Baby Yoda moving its head to showcase that it “sees” you on the curb and acknowledges that you are seeking to cross the street. I ask you this, would you dare to prank Baby Yoda and try to trick the self-driving car into coming to a sudden halt?

Not to a baby, and most certainly not to a Baby Yoda.

Those cute eyes, those puffy cheeks, would incredibly brighten your day and you’d certainly be civil and caring for all those self-driving cars coming down the street again and again (we might end up with worse congestion in some areas, due to roving driverless cars, see my analysis here).

Well, seriously, the topic ostensibly highlights the important point that we need to deal with the pedestrian and self-driving car interaction problem, and likewise the human driver in another vehicle and self-driving car communique problem. It hasn’t become much a “known” or widespread problem as yet, due to the fact that there are so few self-driving cars on our roadways today.

This is undoubtedly going to be a problem in the future and solving it beforehand would seem like a healthy and sane prudent step to take now.

Conclusion

Those of you that are versed in the self-driving car industry are likely assuming that the problem is already solved due to V2P (vehicle-to-pedestrian) electronic communications (or, in the case of cars, V2V or vehicle-to-vehicle electronic messaging).

Yes, it is the case that we are anticipating that self-driving cars will electronically communicate with pedestrians via sending messages to their smartphones (or smartwatches, or whatever electronic smarts you might have on you). That still has to be worked out, plus, you are assuming that pedestrians will have some kind of smart device on them, and that it is able to electronically communicate, and that the communication will occur, and it will happen fast enough, and the pedestrian will pay attention to the smart device when it gets a message, etc.

In brief, putting something directly on the vehicle that is obvious and apparent is the more surefire way of solving the problem (and, it isn’t a mutually exclusive deal either since we can certainly implement both at the same time).

One wonders if Baby Yoda would enjoy sitting on the hood of self-driving cars and getting a chance to be driven around all day long.

Perhaps we should give it a try?

Do or do not.

There is no try.

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