Stonehenge has hidden lessons for self-driving cars.
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Can something quite ancient provide insights for something modern and futuristic?
Well, we know that those that don’t pay attention to history are oft to repeat it, so perhaps there is value in considering notable historical events and artifacts.
The word conjures up the iconic image of those large-sized stones that sit in a circular pattern and about which there is much intrigue and debate.
Residing in Wiltshire on the southern part of England, the hundred or so heavy and unwieldy stones attract nearly 1 million visitors each year.
Besides being a spectacle for the everyday person, the collected stones have been probed, scrutinized and analyzed by the likes of historians, architects, geologists, engineers, astronomers, philosophers, scientists, and a myriad of other experts.
Why is there such intense and enduring interest?
The inquiry stems from the aspect that these huge stones seemed to have been put in place around 5,000 years ago, during the Neolithic era, and perhaps came to gradually be moved into place over a period of 1,500 years.
Furthermore, the stones were presumably brought to the existing location from relatively far distances, meaning that somehow those hefty stones had to be moved to the present-day location (some of the stones weigh an astounding 40 tons and tower at a height of 24 feet tall).
How would people of that time period have possibly been able to move such weighty stones?
They didn’t have the combustion engine, there weren’t any tractors, and nor any kind of seemingly viable mechanical means of transportation at that time to lift or drag something so heavy and bulky.
Notably, estimates are that the wheel itself wasn’t invented until about 3,500 B.C.
Experts further point out that the stones were presumably moved at a time that predated the construction of the pyramids, suggesting that it was unlikely that the sophisticated construction techniques invented for the pyramids was yet unknown.
Theories abound about what the moving process might have been.
Perhaps the heavy stones were floated on the sea and towed to Wiltshire, though it is useful to recognize that the location is landlocked, suggesting that one way or another there still had to be some amount of land-based traversal involved.
Did shifting glaciers by happenstance bring those stones close to the location and the people then managed to somehow manhandle the stones over the remaining land journey required?
Perhaps logs were used to essentially roll the heavy stones and get them to their desired spot?
Additionally, once the stones were miraculously gotten to the locale, some of the stones are set up in a crown or arch-like manner known as a trilithon.
Imagine that you had these massive stones and wanted to put them up in trilithon shape and had no kind of heavy lifting capabilities.
How could you do this?
Nobody knows for sure how they moved the stones to the location, and nobody knows for sure how they perched them up.
Of course, amidst the speculation comes the outside-of-the-box thinking that maybe some extraordinary means spirited the stones into their location and placement.
For example, some believe that sorcery was used.
Or, aliens from another planet provided a helping hand, or appendage, or whatever they might use to move big stones (possibly force-field ray guns, or via the use of the force itself?).
Mark that into the category of UFO’s and is presumably fully explained in Area 51.
For the moment, let’s set aside how the stones came to be moved to the now revered spot, and ask an equally vital question: Why did people want those stones there and why were the stones placed into a circular formation?
Assuming that it would have taken a rather herculean effort to move the stones to the locale, consuming possibly hundreds or thousands of people and working persistently over hundreds or thousands of years, we would have to believe that there was a darned good reason for this mighty struggle.
On a survival basis, the act doesn’t seem to pencil out.
Presumably, you would be best advised to consume your limited energies toward growing crops and hunting for food, a necessity for existence, or making a fortress to protect yourselves, rather than moving a bunch of really big rocks into a circle.
What good does it do to have those stones in that specific spot and arranged in that specific way?
Theories abound about the rationale involved.
It’s a burial site, some say.
It was a religious holy place, some suggest.
Perhaps it was a place of healing.
Some of the rocks are a special type known as ringing rocks, possibly providing a clue about why those specific stones were used. The people of that era might have thought such stones had special powers for healing or for meditation or for other magical purposes.
Another theory is that the stones are a type of device, serving as an astronomical calendar.
The stones are arrayed in a manner to coincide with the winter solstice and the summer solstice.
This arrangement especially attracts visitors today during the solstices, believing that it’s a remarkable place to be, including that it connects us to the past and to the grandness of nature.
Yet another theory is that the stones were put there in homage to the elites and leaders of that time period.
Perhaps it is a memorial to honor the rich and famous.
Generally, the whole topic is rife with mystery and intrigue.
Experts of all kinds have made attempts to explain what it is, how it came to be, why it was done, and so on.
The everyday person can choose to embrace one or more of those theories, or make-up their own theory instead.
Does any of this provide a historical context with possibly hidden lessons that could be surfaced and leveraged toward today’s modern world?
Sure, why not.
Here’s the question to ponder: Does Stonehenge offer insights that can be used to further advance the advent of true self-driving cars?
Yes, those ringing rocks have something to say.
Let’s unpack the matter.
The Levels Of Self-Driving Cars
It is important to clarify what I mean when referring to 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 you 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 Realistic Expectations
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.
What lessons are there from Stonehenge that could possibly apply to the most modern of technology?
Allow me to humbly offer the following applicable Stonehenge-based insights:
· Intentions Not Self-Evident
For Stonehenge, you cannot divine by inspection alone the basis for why the stones are there and what they are intending to convey or do.
It is not self-evident.
One of the criticisms being leveled at true self-driving cars is that the driving act of the AI might not be self-evident to humans that are nearby to the driverless car (I’ve referred to this as the “head nod” problem, see the link here).
As a pedestrian, you today try to look in the eye of the human driver of a car coming down the street at you, attempting to gauge the intent of the driver.
Will the driver slow down or will they continue at their existing pace?
Will the driver let me cross the street or are they determined to go first and not let me cross?
Likewise, human drivers in cars nearby to a driverless car are often at odds about what the driverless car is going to do.
You can generally look at a human driver in another car and guess what the driver might do, such as cutting into your lane or trying to outpace you.
There isn’t anyone seated in a driver’s seat of a true self-driving car and therefore nobody that you can look at to gauge what the AI system is intending to do.
That’s a problem.
There are solutions being pursued, including mounting on the exterior of self-driving cars an LED screen that displays the upcoming actions of the AI driving system. Some of these are perfunctory in their look-and-feel, others are using a catchy (maybe too cute) use of eyeball-like screens.
Anyway, when intentions are not self-evident, such as for Stonehenge and for AI driving systems, it can leave us all in a lurch.
· It Must Be Sorcery Or Magic
For Stonehenge, since we don’t know for sure what or why it exists, some have resorted to suggesting that it came to be via the use of sorcery or magic.
In the case of true self-driving cars, some are so shocked to see a car driving itself that they mentally go off-the-rails and think that the AI is sentient or otherwise other-worldly.
This belief that the AI has extraordinary capabilities is worrisome since it can mislead people into assuming that the AI driving system can do things that it cannot do.
For example, some keep saying that the AI will ensure that we never have any car-related deaths and nor car-related injuries ever again.
A car is still a car.
A self-driving car is still a car.
If a child darts into the street without any in-advance warning and a self-driving car is coming down the street, the physics belies the chances of being able to stop in time or maneuver to avoid hitting the child. In short, we are still going to have some amount of car-related deaths and injuries, though hopefully a lot less than we have today.
Given the recent glorification of AI, some worry that people will fall victim to the false belief that AI is somehow all-knowing and all-seeing, implying that it cannot make mistakes and that it is perfect in comparison to human driving.
This is a myth.
· Lack Of An Explanation
For Stonehenge, there isn’t any originating documentation to explain the origins and basis for the stones being there and what we ought to do about the stones.
Maybe if we had been provided with a kind of owner’s manual, we might know today what the people of long ago had in mind.
You could even make the case that perhaps there is a means of leveraging Stonehenge now to our societal advantage in a modern era, yet we don’t know what that might be.
So far, it pretty much sits there as a tourist attraction and otherwise doesn’t add much value to our existing way of life (though the spark to our curiosity possibly provides some redeemable value and inexorably will reveal more lessons about the past).
One expressed concern about self-driving cars is a lack of explanatory capability to-date, and similarly, the same qualm is leveled at AI systems in general.
Here’s what that means.
Some of the advances in AI lately have been due to the use of large-scale artificial neural networks, often also referred to as deep learning. These are nothing more than mathematical representations of simplistic arithmetic “neuron” computer-based simulations and are not anything on the scale and immensity of human neurons and human thinking.
Essentially, the AI neural networks are doing computational pattern matching.
As these get bigger and more convoluted, we are increasingly losing the aspect of why the computational pattern matching has ascertained a particular result. It is hopelessly enmeshed in a numerical web that lacks any kind of logically apparent explanation.
With humans, you can usually obtain a reasoning or explanation for their actions.
I ate the apple because I was hungry.
I opted to take a right at the light because the street ahead is busy with construction and it would be faster to make a right and go up to the next street to avoid the traffic snarl where the construction is taking place.
Right now, few of the automakers and self-driving tech firms are doing much to provide what’s called XAI, or explainable AI.
Presumably, as a human passenger, you would normally be able to interact with a ridesharing driver, a human driver, and ask them to explain what they are doing.
Why did you make the right turn just now?
Is there some reason that we are driving so slowly?
People are inevitably going to want the AI of self-driving cars to be able to explain themselves.
Advances in Natural Language Processing (NLP) are already evident via our day-to-day use of systems such as Siri and Alexa.
Our expectation will be that if we are using AI driving systems to drive us around in driverless cars, by gosh, the AI ought to be able to explain what it is doing.
AI developers and self-driving tech makers that simply shrug their shoulders and say that we should blindly trust the mathematically derived models are going to discover that people won’t relish a world of prevalent self-driving cars that aren’t able to indicate the what and why of their driving efforts.
Currently, it is exciting to ride in a self-driving car and the few that are doing so aren’t yet clamoring for XAI in the driving system, but once there are more driverless cars on our streets and more people riding in them, you can mark my words that explanatory AI driving systems will become a pressing need.
I doubt that we’ll ever be able to get those massive stones at Stonehenge to talk with us, while in the case of today’s AI and the future AI systems to come, we certainly should expect and insist that explanations go with the territory.
I hope that the use of Stonehenge as a living past that can be related to the present and future provided a bit of whimsy and thought rendering.
Could we put the shoe on the other foot?
In essence, maybe there’s a means to have true self-driving cars provide lessons that would help unlock the mysteries of Stonehenge.
Or, in lieu of trying to consider how self-driving cars could apply, maybe we can craft an AI system that’s devoted to cracking the secrets of Stonehenge.
Just as soon as I’m done getting my AI self-driving car to work, I’ll switch over to the Stonehenge project and let you know what the AI hacking reveals.