Sunday, November 8, 2015

International Driverless Cars Conference, Adelaide, 5-6 Nov, 2015

As a computer programmer, I was probably not typical amongst the 300 attendees at the International Driverless Cars Conference in Adelaide.  However, after reading the Columbia University Earth Institute study,  Transforming Personal Mobility, I'd became interested in simulating a shared fleet of autonomous cars in Canberra.  So, off I went to Adelaide to learn more.

SA Premier Jay Weatherill and Adelaide's Lord Mayor Martin Haese started the conference by issuing the following challenge to delegates: help us use this technology to reduce congestion, road accidents and demand for new roads, provide cheap door-to-door and on-demand mobility for everyone, reclaim public and private urban space from decades of car-domination and make Adelaide the world's first carbon neutral city.

Haese urged the audience to ask "What is possible?" with what he described as "this most profound technology of the 21st century". A line-up of international and local experts from industry and academia did just that over the following two days.

David Homburg, president of the Australian Institute of Architects SA Chapter and principal at Hassell Adelaide discussed how self-driving cars could reverse the damage inflicted by car parking and garaging, ever-wider roads and rail right-of-ways to the urban form. He noted the typical double garage takes the same space as a hotel room, and increasingly dominates suburban street-scapes. Just the savings from tighter packing of self-parking cars would release 25% of car-parking space, and fewer but shared cars would allow cities to reclaim vast amounts of space allocated to multi-storey car-parks and street parking. In considering how the coming technology would affect transport options, Homburg said it wasn't "one size fits all". He noted that Singapore, with high density and efficient rail, are planning to use self-driving cars primarily for "the last mile" between homes and rail stations. But with an analysis that has implications for Canberra's transport planners, he suggested that many cities such as Adelaide already have a road infrastructure with the capacity to use the more efficient driverless cars as mass transit.

In a QandA session, former WA Transport Minister and current Federal Member for Perth, Alannah MacTiernan raised this issue again: will the arrival of fully autonomous cars call into question the appropriateness of traditional major road and rail infrastructure projects?  The consensus seemed to be somewhere between "it depends on circumstances" and "yes".

Professor Alan Stevens, chief researcher at the UK Transport Research Laboratory and Chairman of Intelligent Transport System and Paul Grey, CEO of Cohda Wireless detailed the benefits of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communications in avoiding accidents and optimising traffic flows. Stevens described three driverless car trials supported by the UK government and industry in Greenwich, Bristol and Milton Keynes. [Milton Keynes is of interest to Canberra residents, as it is a planned city designed around a hierarchical grid road system and the private car in the 1960's. High population growth has raised the spectre of congestion. Earlier this year, Milton Keynes discarded plans for a light-rail in favour of a trial of autonomous "pods".]

Paul Grey characterised the safety, fuel efficiency and congestion improvements facilitated by V2V and V2I, and how his SA company's vehicle-to-everything (V2X) technology will soon start appearing in General Motors. He also unveiled their V2X radar technology which allows local mapping capabilities to piggy-back on V2X communication transmissions.

Oliver Cartsen, Professor of Transport Safety, University of Leeds, discussed driver behaviour, the causes of accidents and how safety could be improved with relatively "low tech" application of V2V systems to alert drivers to dangers and perhaps to automatically take action to prevent accidents.

In related presentations, Professors Raj Rajkumar and Ramayya Krishnan, both from Carnegie Mellon University, stated the motivations behind their work: to reduce the 1.2 million traffic deaths annually, to reduce the costs of congestion, and to assist independence and self-esteem by providing mobility to all. They reported the challenges, both technical and societal, which must be addressed before driverless cars are commercialised. Rajkumar stressed that the huge benefits on offer have generated great competitive pressures between automakers and large IT companies, and between countries and states vying to gain advantage through early adoption, which in turn has spurred extremely rapid progress. Krishnan described how relatively simple signal optimisations had been demonstrated to produce savings of around 25% in travel times and 20% in vehicle emissions in urban settings. He raised the importance of public policy in ensuring private gains to those using driverless cars are not offset as costs to others. For example, an occupant of a driverless car is free to use their travel time productively and will not suffer as keenly the costs of congestion to which they contribute.

Gerard Waldron, Managing Director of the Australian road research group, ARRB outlined the importance of collaboration in gaining both the early and long-term benefits of intelligence transport systems. To this end, ARRB has established the Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative (ADVI) which will facilitate cooperation between industry, academia and government on technology and policy.

Representatives from Volvo, Tesla, Bosch and Navya ( a new manufacturer of driverless shuttle buses) described their technology and directions.  After a raising expectations of an exciting announcement by first showing a slide full of fine-print with terms such as "safe harbour" and saying "Tesla doesn't normally do this", the Tesla presenter turned out to be a sales rep and showed a couple of marketing videos most attendees had already seen.  He also repeated Elon Musk's assertion made in October that Tesla will deliver a fully autonomous car by 2018, qualifying somewhat by describing that date as "Elon time".  I'm sure he was meaning his boss was optimistic, not delusional.  The apparent consensus from presenters was that fully autonomous cars capable of operating in all environments would probably not be commercialised until 2020 at the earliest, and possibly as late as 2030, although specialised operation in certain settings would almost certainly be available before unrestricted autonomy.

Philosopher Robert Sparrow from Monash went over some well-discussed ethical and commercial issues raised by cars that could be programmed to kill their passengers.  Gerard Waldron, Managing Director, ARRB and Rita Excell also from ARRB described the rationale and operation of their new Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative (ADVI).

Robert Anderson and Jeremy Woolley from the Adelaide University's Centre for Automotive Safety Research discussed benefits of auto safety systems and made some interesting points about safety spending.  For example, it is known that sealing a road shoulder helps drivers maintain control should they stray off the main road; but as more cars are fitted with better brakes and stability control, is this the best use of public funds?

A major theme to emerge during the conference was the care required during the transition from full human control of cars through the increasing levels of automation to fully autonomous operation. Many speakers discussed the vital but difficult "human factors" problem of making it clear what the car is doing and who is responsible. Simon Henderson, a pilot and manager of Virgin's Fleet Standards discussed autonomous aviation systems, warning that great care must be taken in their design as otherwise monitoring them can require more knowledge than flying. Apparently, one of the most frequent final things heard in flight-recorder post-mortems is "What's it doing now?"

Another common theme was that the synergy of autonomous driving technology, V2V and V2I communications, electric vehicles and on-demand travel in a shared fleet of cars, together forms intelligent transport systems (ITS) capable of delivering much cheaper, cleaner and more convenient transport. (Yes, "ITS" is a "thing" you can expect to hear a lot about in the coming years.)

As Andrew Somers from Transoptim Consulting observed "transport has not been seriously disrupted for some time", but that period of stability is about to end.

Whether the great potential of commercially available fully autonomous cars is realised within 3 years as claimed by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, or within 5 years as predicted by Ford CEO Mark Fields and by Google, or even with 10 or 15 years is almost immaterial, because urban infrastructure is planned, built and maintained over generations.

The internet transformed the world of communications and ideas by facilitating the very cheap and near instantaneous dissemination of information. Autonomous cars promise a correspondingly dramatic revolution in the movement of people and physical goods, with far-reaching flow-on effects on where and how we live. The better prepared we are, the greater the benefits we will derive.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Don't just rip a book, don't just rip a bookshelf - rip the library

The BookLiberator, another cheap DIY book scanning kit has just been announced. There's even a site dedicated to DIY book scanners.

The relevance of mass digitisation for libraries has been highlighted by a report commissioned by CLIR: "On the Cost of Keeping a Book," by Paul Courant and Matthew "Buzzy" Nielsen, contained within the document "The Idea of Order: Transforming Research Collections for 21st Century Scholarship" published in June 2010.

Courant and Nielsen analyse the full costs of storing physical books, and conclude that for a typical book held by a US research library in an open stack, the "fully loaded" cost is $US4.26 per-annum. Moving the book to a high density storage facility after 20 years reduces this cost to $US1.99 pa in perpetuity, assuming very low usage of the information it contains (that is, very low circulation).

Drawing on the experiences of the Hathi Trust, Courant and Nielsen estimate the comparable "fully loaded" cost of storing a black-and-white ebook in a mirrored digital archive with tape backup is less than $US0.15 pa, and $US0.40 pa for a full colour ebook and after adding a third mirror site.

A very signficant difference; but the real "total societal" cost differential is far greater.

Consider the 3.1 million monographs held by the National Library of Australia in Canberra. Less than 2% of the Australian population has convenient physical access to the NLA, so getting access to a book at the NLA for a typical Australian is very expensive if the person needs to travel to the book, and expensive and slow if they are fortunate enough to be able to get the book to travel to them through an inter-library loan.

The 2001 inter-library loan benchmark by the NLA revealed the average cost to the participating libraries of a loan was over $A49, and the average delay between the request being made and the reader being informed that their requested book was waiting for them at their library was over 11 days.

But a scanned and OCR'ed version of the book, an ebook, could be delivered almost instantly and for negligible cost to the reader (or, if the reader did not have a means of receiving or reading it, to their library). It could be delivered in a format which was easier to read (reader selectable font) and which supported searching, annotation, copying and pasting and hyperlinking. It could be made available to 2 or more readers simultaneously.

But the primary benefit to libraries is the greatly reduced cost of storage and access.

The Internet Archive claim it costs about $US30 to digitise a book and store it in perpetuity using their widely deployed hardware and software. That's much less than the cost of one inter-library loan.

The Internet Archive recently announced a new digital lending library service with 3 categories of books, two of which are not controversial:

  • downloading public domain books
  • linking to the commercial OverDrive service for "current" books made available through that service by the reader's library

But a third, much smaller selection of out-of-print but in-copyright books have been scanned and made available for anyone to freely download and read for 2 weeks. After 2 weeks, the downloaded copy can no-longer be read and the ebook becomes available for someone else to download.

There are currently less than 200 books in this third category. Eric Hellman speculates that Internet Archive's founder, Brewster Kahle, must have expensive legal advice, and that perhaps this ploy is a bait for the publishers.

And 200 books won't change much; they are just noise compared with the number of in-print and in-copyright books which have been "liberated" and circulate on peer-to-peer networks.

It is very likely that very soon, Google Editions will begin making cloud-hosted versions of in-copyright books available for an average price of $US6, of which about $US3.80 will be made available to the Books Right Registry for distribution to the rights holders.

Libraries are funded to preserve and circulate books. They perform an essential role in enriching our society by making information and entertainment available to all. By storing and circulating ebooks rather than physical books, libraries can probably save around $4 per book per year and simultaneously provide a better service to their readers. Even a system which allowed just one electronic copy of each in-copyright book to circulate would provide a better service and be much cheaper than the current physical storage and circulation system.

But what if the savings made from going "e" where made available to purchase additional "copies" for simultaneous circulation? Or what if rights holders could be compensated according to the circulation of their creations?

For decades, the Australian Government has run a public lending right program which makes payments to creators and publishers based on their physical holdings in Australian libraries.

It's now time for libraries to provide a better service for their readers and reduce their own costs by digitising their collections.

It's time for libraries to build on the technology of their new commercial competitors and to spend less resources on shuffling and storing blocks of paper and more on encouraging and rewarding those who produce the content.

Unlike the costs of storing and circulation books, the benefits of a better informed citizenry are incalculable.

From the Internet Archive Digital Lending Library announcement:

"As the first American library to lend books, we believe it is only
fitting that we extend and upgrade this basic, yet crucial service in
the digital age,” said Tom Blake, Digital Projects Manager Boston
Public Library. “We hold the third largest research collection in the
country, much of which is available at our buildings only during
business hours. Digital lending allows us to circulate these rare,
precious, and unique holdings into our local neighborhoods and
beyond – anytime, anywhere, free to all."

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Google Book Settlement doesn't address the hard problem

The Google Book Settlement (GBS) defines an arrangement between the Association of American Publishers (AAP), the Authors Guild and Google which allows Google to digitise and sell access to out-of-print books which are still subject to copyright, and to share the proceeds with the rights holders.

It's easy to see what AAP and the Authors Guild were thinking: books, like all information, are going 'e', lets monetise these lazy assets, and if you can't beat them, join them. But AAP and the Authors Guild are "joining" Google like the Celtic Gauls joined the Roman Empire.

It probably costs Google about $90 to digitise each book covered by the GBS: $60 in up-front payment to the Books Rights Registry (BRR) and around $30 to perform the digitisation (*).

I'm not sure what it costs to author, edit, layout, proof-read and index the typical book, but I've seen estimates that it's typically many tens of thousands of dollars. That is, that the difference between the costs of digitisation and production is around 3 orders of magnitude.

But the split between Google and the BRR is 37%:63%. That is, despite costs hundreds or thousands of times higher, rights holders get only twice Google's share of income produced.

At an average sales price of $6, Google need only $90 / $6 / 0.37 = 41 sales of a title to recoup their costs (**). Rights holders need more like 15000 sales to recoup theirs. The risk/reward balance looks to be unbalanced and hence unstable.

Maybe that's fine - after all, these books are out-of-print, and the rights holders have presumably already got all the revenue they can from these works? Well, no. All we can deduce from the fact that a book is out-of-print is that it is no longer commercially advantageous, given the high costs of producing, moving and selling physical books, to bother printing, distributing and selling it. Old books have to make way for the new on the book-store shelf.

The problem with the settlement is that given the reality of inevitable piracy of digitised books, the interests of rights holders and Google are seriously misaligned. Google has little incentive to be very worried about piracy, and in any case, they're smart enough to know there's nothing they can do about it. All they need is to sell 40 odd copies (or get equivalent per-book institutional subscription revenue to their book database) and they're in the black. If the sell 100, they've got a 200% return on investment, whereas the rights holders haven't even covered the costs of the layout artist.

Digitised books from the Google repository will be pirated and there's nothing that can be done about it. DRM wouldn't help a bit, copies will be untraceable, watermarks will be removed (***).

In the short-term, those lucky enough through personal wealth or institutional affiliation (or those happy to use pirated copies) will enjoy previously unimaginable access to our written culture, albeit at the terms set by a for-profit corporation. But in the long term, we'll all suffer as the incentives to produce are reduced by uncontrollable piracy.

As Kevin Kelly says
The internet is a giant copy machine ... a super-distribution system, where once a copy is introduced it will continue to flow through the network forever, much like electricity in a superconductive wire. We see evidence of this in real life. Once anything that can be copied is brought into contact with internet, it will be copied, and those copies never leave. Even a dog knows you can't erase something once it's flowed on the internet.

As Paul Krugman says
Bit by bit, everything that can be digitized will be digitized, making intellectual property ever easier to copy and ever harder to sell for more than a nominal price. And we’ll have to find business and economic models that take this reality into account.

The Google Books Settlement does not take this reality into account. Rather, it is a short term commercial play which helps to cement Google's pre-eminent position in the information business.

Google isn't being evil, or even tricky, it's just being rational. I assert that what the AAP, the Authors Guild and our society is really looking for is what Krugman describes as "a sustainable business and economic models that take this reality into account".

One attempt to come up with a model that fits Krugman's specification does so by incorporating compulsory licensing with free, easy and anonymous access and downloading of digitised materials administered by commercially disinterested parties and funded by general taxation. More details are here.


* The Internet Archive asserts it costs them around $30 to digitise a typical book by scanning from paper and store the digitised copy.

** The settlement claims that about half the books covered will be offered for sale for $5.99 or less.

*** Copies will be downloaded by individuals with access to large institutional subscriptions (eg, university students using their library's access), programmatically combined with other copies to locate and remove or blur watermarks. The costs of piracy are near zero as everything can be automated (see for example, the Google Book Downloader which automates the process of creating a local PDF copy of books on Google whose pages can be viewed). The music industry has learnt that neither DRM nor attacking P2P networks materially helps.