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Chilly Canadian Data Key in Teaching Self-Driving Cars

Chilly Canadian Data Key in Teaching Self-Driving Cars

cars that drive themselves

We at DFC spend a lot of time on the road, from visiting clients to dropping in on family, to ferrying our barbeque sauces to market. We’ve seen our share of good, fair, and poor drivers — but what we haven’t seen yet are cars with no drivers at all.
 
While I’ve been watching developments in autonomous cars keenly, what hasn’t occurred to me is the fact that they’re all being tested in California and other temperate climes have nothing to do with proximity to Silicon Valley. It’s primarily because the weather there is nice — and in rugged wintry Canada, it’s, well… not so much.
 
But this has led to a bias in the AI used in autonomous cars, where the data set of road conditions in sunny SoCal is perfect — too perfect. This spells danger in the Great White North. As reads an account in Wired, professor Krzysztof Czarnecki, who built his own self-driving car in 2018, and attempted to train it in snowy Waterloo with a data set from more temperate Germany nearly didn’t make it out alive. He quickly figured out why.
 
“Inclement conditions are challenging for autonomous vehicles for several reasons. Snow and rain can obscure and confuse sensors, hide markings on the road, and make a car perform differently. Beyond this, bad weather represents a difficult test for artificial intelligence algorithms. Programs trained to pick out cars and pedestrians in bright sunshine will struggle to make sense of vehicles topped with piles of snow and people bundled up under layers of clothing.

‘Your AI will be erratic,’ Czarnecki says of the typical self-driving car faced with snow. ‘It’s going to see things that aren’t there and also miss things.’”
 
Czarnecki is surprised that big industry players aren’t trying to tackle the harsh weather issue, especially considering the autonomous vehicle industry is pretty well-tested in ideal conditions and could use the challenge. I guess capitalism drives (pun intended!) everything: perhaps there’s not enough of an audience in self-sufficient Canada to make the innovation worthwhile? What do you think the reasons are, dear reader? And, would you even trust a driverless car in some of our wackiest weather?

Hearing a Voice from the Grave — Through Science!

mummy's voice

Boris Karloff’s immersive acting technique ain’t got nothing on the determined researchers from Royal Holloway – the University of London, University of York, and Leeds Museum. They were able to scan the preserved vocal cords of a 3,000-year-old mummy, and 3D printed a version that was then paired with an established invention called the Vocal Tract Organ. Then, they “played” the scanned vocal cords — allowing us to hear a time-traveling vowel sound straight from the throat of an ancient Egyptian priest!

“Professor David Howard, from Royal Holloway, said: ‘I was demonstrating the Vocal Tract Organ in June 2013 to colleagues, with implications for providing authentic vocal sounds back to those who have lost the normal speech function of their vocal tract or larynx following an accident or surgery for laryngeal cancer.

‘I was then approached by Professor John Schofield who began to think about the archaeological and heritage opportunities of this new development. […]

Professor Joann Fletcher, of the department of archaeology at the University of York, added: ‘Ultimately, this innovative interdisciplinary collaboration has given us the unique opportunity to hear the sound of someone long dead by virtue of their soft tissue preservation combined with new developments in technology.’”

(You can hear Nesyamun’s voice from the grave here.)

For me, the most satisfying aspect of this recreation is that it aligns with Nesyamun’s own beliefs: in his religious practice, to speak the name of the dead is to make them live again. Nesyamun has done one better — he is speaking for himself. And we’re hearing his story through our modern technology!

What the Cuttlefish Saw: 3D Hunting and the Structure of the Brain

cuttlefish hunting

If the octopus is the mastermind of the sea, then I consider the cuttlefish its tough, canny cousin — a cephalopod enforcer with a literal backbone (not really: it’s an internal shell), a Joe “Pesce,”  if you will.
 
Okay, okay, I’ll stop… But a team of scientists from the University of Cambridge and the University of Minnesota won’t: won’t stop trying to understand the cuttlefish predation process using unusual and hilarious means, that is! In an experiment conducted at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, the team outfitted cuttlefish with 3D glasses — the classic, monster-movie, red-and-blue ones — in an effort to find out how they hunt their especially skittish aquatic prey. Turns out, it’s a delicate proposition: cuttlefish use their long dual feeding tentacles to snag dinner, and they have to be just the right distance. If not, they risk scaring the doomed shrimp or crab away, or even missing it entirely. Humans use stereopsis, or binocular, vision as the basis of our depth perception — but do cuttlefish?
 
“To test how the cuttlefish brain computes distance to an object, the team trained cuttlefish to wear 3D glasses and strike at images of two walking shrimp, each a different color displayed on a computer screen […]

The images were offset, allowing for the researchers to determine if the cuttlefish were comparing images between the left and the right eyes to gather information about distance to their prey. […] Depending on the image offset, the cuttlefish would perceive the shrimp to be either in front of or behind the screen. The cuttlefish predictably struck too close to or too far from the screen, according to the offset.
 
‘How the cuttlefish reacted to the disparities clearly establishes that cuttlefish use stereopsis when hunting,’ said Trevor Wardill, assistant professor at the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior in the College of Biological Sciences. ‘When only one eye could see the shrimp, meaning stereopsis was not possible, the animals took longer to position themselves correctly. When both eyes could see the shrimp, meaning they utilized stereopsis, it allowed cuttlefish to make faster decisions when attacking. This can make all the difference in catching a meal.’”
 
While this experiment uncovers one point where cuttlefish and human vision dovetail, that is where the similarities end. Cuttlefish process stereoscopic images differently than humans do, due to their vastly different brains. Unlike us, they don’t have an occipital lobe; that is, a part of the brain that is specifically dedicated to processing visual stimuli. That means that stereopsis in humans (and other vertebrates) and cuttlefish developed independently. The next step is for researchers to dissect cuttlefish brain circuitry, to see if they can pin this fascinating difference down!
 
It’s staggering that brains as different as humans and cuttlefish can develop the exact same skill. We humans can learn so much from the natural world — not least the fact that despite our advancements we are animals too.

From Beds to the Podium: Recycling at the 2020 Olympics

Olympic and Paralympic officials in Tokyo are scoring a point for sustainability in the design of athletes’ accommodations for the summer Games this July and August. Specifically, the bedframes that the competitors will be sleeping on between matches, races, or bouts in the Athletes Village will be made of a sturdy but recyclable cardboard.
 
As anyone who has ever tried to collapse a shipping box to go in the blue bin knows, corrugated cardboard can be flimsy on its sides, but tenaciously durable along its folded edges. The Tokyo bedframes are constructed out of several folded modules that seem to take advantage of that fact. (Takashi Kitajima, general manager of the Athletes Village, has stated that the cardboard bedframes are stronger than wood.) The organizers envision total recyclability of the bedframes after the Olympics and Paralympics into a variety of paper products. Additionally, the plastic-based mattresses will be fully recycled into plastic items.
 
“‘The organizing committee was thinking about recyclable items, and the bed was one of the ideas,’ Kitajima explained, crediting local Olympic sponsor Airweave Inc. for the execution.

Organizers say this is the first time that the beds and bedding in the Athletes Village have been made of renewable materials.

The Athletes Village being built alongside Tokyo Bay will comprise 18,000 beds for the Olympics and be composed of 21 apartment towers. Even more building construction is being planned in the next several years.

Real estate ads say the units will be sold off afterward, or rented, with sale prices starting from about 54 million yen—or about $500,000—and soaring to three or four times that much.”

Japan in a very recycling-conscious society; trust them to come up with such a staggering plan, and follow through with it! They are also a practical culture and assure athletes their recyclable beds are guaranteed to support a sleeping weight of 200kg — though they can’t guarantee they’ll hold up under a celebratory gold-medal bed-jumping party, or any other particularly vigorous, um, sport that athletes at high-level competitions are notorious for. Regardless, we at DFC wish all Olympic and Paralympic competitors the absolute best and look forward to watching their (well-rested!) efforts this summer.