"Take bacon and eggs, for example: the chicken is involved; the pig is committed."
I spent the day yesterday searching the web for news of the DARPA Grand Challenge. This is something only a true TechnoWeenie could care about: http://www.darpa.mil/grandchallenge/
An associate and myself have been following it for about a year and yesterday was the big day. He and his brother actually drove out to Primm, Nevada to view the "race" on the big screen in the casino there. The entries were supposed to be vehicles that would navigate a 144 mile course (some off road, some on) completely autonomously. No organic operators (human or otherwise), no remote control. The exact course was handed out in electronic format a few hours before the start so that you couldn't preprogram your vehicle to follow a given course, all you could do was tell it where it needed to go and let it figure out how to get there from here.
Two entries took off and looked good for a few minutes, but got seven miles down the course and quit. Another took a few minutes to go six miles, then about three others took a couple hours to go one mile and finally at 11:57 MST, the last two were shut down. One had gone a mile, the other five miles. It became pretty obvious, three hours in, that even though a couple were still "operating", at one to five miles every three hours, nobody was going to finish the race in ten hours, per the rules. Eight of the fifteen starters never logged a mile.
One got itself tangled in a barb wire fence (sounds pretty autonomous to me, I used to do it all the time), one rolled over (I guess artificial equilibrium is still in its infancy), another steered itself into a concrete abutment right out of the chute (again, before they call this a failure of autonomous operation, they need to come observe New Mexicans driving in a snow storm). I need to take another look at the rules. I know the vehicles were supposed to operate autonomously, but did it actually say that they had to drive better than autonomous humans do? Hmmmm, may be a loophole here.
It's a really interesting set of rules, but we figured we would need about $20 million and five years to develop a vehicle that would snag us the $1 million prize. It looks like we were right.
They will apparently re-run it next year, since nobody won, and if I could just hurry up and win the PowerBall in the next month or so, maybe I could be there with my Toyota all duded out for totally autonomous operation. Yeah, that's the ticket. DARPA's idea of a practical application for this technology is to be able to send unmanned vehicles on suicidal military missions you can't get anyone to volunteer for. My idea of a practical application is to be working at the computer at 11:30 pm and have a button I can click on that will instruct my truck sitting in the driveway (via an RF link) to go hit the drive-up at What-A-Burger for a burger and a coke and don't forget the fries. I may never have to put my shoes on again.
Like I said, when we first started following this, our impression was that the US government was offering a million dollar prize to someone who would do $20-$100 million worth of research and development for them. Clever, actually. A lot more clever than you might expect from a bunch of bureaucrats. Which is a little bit scary, if you think about it. These bureaucrats are thinking a little too near the side of the box for my taste. Even though bureaucrats are forever exhorting each other to "think outside the box", they usually end up fighting each other for the exact center of the inside of the box. So most of the time, instead of bureaucrats climbing the walls and escaping from the box, you find a big pile of them right in the middle of it.
That's why I was surprised to hear that it had occurred to someone to harness the power of the word "million". The term "a million dollars" still evokes visions of vast wealth, of unlimited success, of having totally won the game of life. Back in the days of Carnegie, Morgan, Rockefeller and Joe Kennedy, to be a millionaire was to be obscenely rich. Not anymore, really. Nowadays, if you put a million dollars in CDs (the certificate of deposit kind) and lived off the interest, you'd be living below the poverty level. If you invested it in mutual funds, you could live comfortably, but just comfortably, not in a thirty-two room mansion with a fleet of Rolls-Royces in the detached garage. And it occurs to practically no one that as soon as your friendly local government hands you a check for a million dollars, they're going to want 40% of it back (at least) in taxes.
The cleverness of this scheme was born out by the fact that the team that did the best, from Carnegie Mellon University, had spent over three million in grants and corporate sponsorships on their project and the fact that DARPA itself had spent $13 million administering the program for a year and a half. The million dollar prize really was relative pocket change. Of course, there's a fair chance that no one was fooled at all. Most of the people involved would have done it for pizza, Mountain Dew, a T-shirt and the fun of it. Some of them were high schoolers.
There's another techno-challenge program going on with a $10 million prize. This one requires you to launch three people into "space" (they don't have to orbit) and return them to earth alive with clean underwear and do this twice within two weeks. The idea is to spark interest in commercial space flight. Sure, the prize is an order of magnitude larger, but I bet you and your buddies from Java Scripting class are going to have cough up well over $100 million to pull this one off. Let's say $300 million, just to be safe, unless the government gets involved, then $300 billion is probably a better bet.
Well, this got totally out of control. Again.