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Leading AI Researcher Says Fully Autonomous Vehicles Are Far From Imminent

Shlomo Zilberstein, a professor of computer science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, wants to uncover the subtle elements of human behavior need to carefully considered in order to create reliable semi-autonomous systems. (Photo credit: UMass Amherst)
Shlomo Zilberstein, a professor of computer science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, wants to uncover the aspects of human behavior that need to be carefully considered in order to create reliable, semi-autonomous systems. (Photo credit: UMass Amherst)

Excited by the prospect of a fully-autonomous vehicle? Don’t hold your breath! Shlomo Zilberstein, the conference committee chair the 29th conference of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence(AAAI) in Austin, Texas, says such vehicles are likely a long way off. Zilberstein studies the way artificial agents plan their future actions, particularly when working semi-autonomously–that is to say in conjunction with people or other devices.

Zilberstein questions whether marketing campaigns for leading auto manufacturers have presented a realistic vision of the near-future, when they fail to show a human at the wheel, and instead show people show checking email, chatting, or even sleep while the car motors to its next destination.

In his talk at the “Blue Sky” session at AAAI, Zilberstein argued that in many areas, including driving, we will go through a long period where humans act as co-pilots or supervisors, passing off responsibility to the vehicle when possible and taking the wheel when the driving gets tricky, before the technology reaches full autonomy (if it ever does).

In such a scenario, the car would need to communicate with drivers to alert them when they need to take over control. In cases where the driver is non-responsive, the car must be able to autonomously make the decision to safely move to the side of the road and stop.

“People are unpredictable. What happens if the person is not doing what they’re asked or expected to do, and the car is moving at sixty miles per hour?” Zilberstein asked. “This requires ‘fault-tolerant planning.’ It’s the kind of planning that can handle a certain number of deviations or errors by the person who is asked to execute the plan.”

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Zilberstein has been exploring these and other practical questions related to the possibility of artificial agents that act among us.

Zilberstein, a professor of computer science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, works with human studies experts from academia and industry to help uncover the subtle elements of human behavior that one would need to take into account when preparing a robot to work semi-autonomously. He then translates those ideas into computer programs that let a robot or autonomous vehicle plan its actions–and create a plan B in case of an emergency.

There are a lot of subtle cues that go into safe driving. Take for example a four-way stop. Officially, the first car to the crosswalk goes first, but in actuality, people watch each other to see if and when to make their move.

“There is a slight negotiation going on without talking,” Zilberstein explained. “It’s communicating by your action such as eye contact, the wave of a hand, or the slight revving of an engine.”

In trials, autonomous vehicles often sit paralyzed at such stops, unable to safely read the cues of the other drivers on the road. This “undecidedness” is a big problem for robots. Zilberstein’s systems are designed to remedy this problem. Hopefully, they will be ready to hit the streets soon so that smart, semi-autonomous can make driving easier and safer.

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