Is the world ready for driverless transport?

A Deutsche Bahn driverless bus, trialed in December 2016. Image: Getty.

It’s not easy being a rail passenger. In recent months, London and south-east England have regularly ground to a halt in a series of rail and Tube strikes, disrupting the lives of millions.

One newspaper headline even claimed that the situation was so dire that commuters might be hired by Southern Rail to drive the trains themselves. Recent reports suggest that some kind of resolution may soon be in sight, but as technology advances apace, do transport networks really need staff at all?

With a self-driving bus, the Navya, arriving on the streets Las Vegas, the first in the US to operate on a public road, we may be approaching a future in which our public transport networks could be run, efficiently, by machines. Indeed, London’s Docklands Light Railway (DLR) network has been operating as a driverless service since 1987 – and 99 per cent of services leave on time.

There rages, however, an embittered debate about how comfortable people may feel entrusting themselves to an automated decision maker.It seems to represent a new, psychological frontier of a kind we have never before encountered.

Whenever machinery is introduced to complete tasks traditionally done by humans, both laymen and professionals are often sceptical – especially when those machines can make decisions on our behalf. But while decision-making machines used to be little more than a theoretical issue, a philosophical debate even, we now have the technology to make them a fact of life.

There are vehicles lurking in corporate R&D hangars whose decision-making abilities on the go are superior to our own, and they are being tested by brands such as Tesla, Volvo, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, Audi, and Rolls-Royce.

A new age

So what is stopping their wider introduction? The key term used by innovation management experts for how ready a society is for change is “Absorptive Capacity”. This can be likened to the ability of a sponge to absorb liquid, or, in our case, a society to absorb innovation. This absorptive capacity can be influenced by factors such as people’s knowledge and experience of the subject at hand; if there is little of both in society, then that society is likely to react coolly to a proposed innovation.

In other words, if we don’t know enough about how something works we are less likely to embrace it. And how do we get to understand new things if their makers are tight-lipped about how they work? This is one of the biggest obstacles facing the implementation of a far-reaching driverless transport network.

Accidents involving new technology don’t help in the trustworthiness stakes – as the recent crash of a Tesla car in autopilot mode demonstrated. The accident caused people to question the safety of self-driving vehicles, even though they are far safer than human drivers, who cause 94 per cent of accidents in the US. Indeed, human error accounts for far more accidents than mechanical failure

At present, we live in times where our technological capabilities greatly surpass the understanding most of us have of them. If only a few of us understand how a telephone works, we can safely assume that even fewer comprehend what goes on inside a computer. We simply don’t know anymore how our stuff works – so how can we trust it?

But we should. Machines are more predictable than humans, since they don’t have minds of their own, and their suitability for a given task can be established in controlled environments before they are released into the wild. With humans, you never really know what they’ll do next.


Redefining normal

It is frequently argued that mechanised brains may not be able to improvise the way humans can, making driverless vehicles easy prey for unforeseen adversity. While this is true, the other side of the coin is that an ability to improvise in odd circumstances may be less valuable than an ability to always respond accurately within a set framework of normal situations. Normal situations, after all, occur at a far higher frequency. In short, a truck or train capable of doing the right thing every time in a normal context is better than a truck with the ability to evade a zombie apocalypse if it happens. They are also less likely to go on strike.

Besides, the wealth of experience gathered by human operators can now be programmed into the circuits of all driverless vehicles, creating a high and homogenous level of ability to understand and react to situations we will never have among human drivers.

All things considered, a vehicle operated by a well-programmed computer is set to be superior to a human operator in all but the most unusual situations – which are far less likely to occur than those which frequently trip up human operators. It is very doubtful that any computer in charge of operating a vehicle will ever get distracted, suicidal, angry, irrational, or drunk. It will never act malevolently, it won’t be texting on its smart phone when it shouldn’t be, and it won't be having an argument with its passenger. And it probably won’t get creative and attempt to impress or scare another vehicle operator.

It would seem logical to assume that the level of technology required for running a comparably simple operation like a train on tracks between stations is there. The biggest obstacle is our will.

Indeed, the barrier between us and a new, reliable world of driverless transport may only be our inability to understand – and feel comfortable with – the technology. It will take experience to build that trust, and the chance for this to happen has arrived with the Las Vegas driverless bus.

Perhaps it’s time to get on it. The Conversation

Chris Ebbert is senior lecturer in product design at Nottingham Trent University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

****

Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

****
Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.