The bike with two brains and no rider
Posted on 22nd August 2019
As one of the more enthusiastic cyclists at Be-IT (OK, the one with the serious lycra), I was intrigued to read that Chinese scientists have made a bike that steers, balances and avoids obstacles in the road but doesn’t need a human rider. Why? It’s like no-alcohol beer or low-fat chocolate. What’s the point of a bike without a rider?
The scientists claim they are not trying to put bicycle messengers/pizza delivery boys out of work, but rather are seeking to tackle an interesting technical challenge, to wit, to unite two key elements of artificial intelligence: devices that try to mimic the brain closely and devices that stick to classical computing.
It’s really difficult for a computer to learn to ride a two-wheel bicycle. The thousands of continuous corrections we humans make to keep a bike upright are done instinctively, once we’ve got the knack. Moreover, while we are making them, we also have to be aware of the world around us as we pedal along, so we don’t hit, or be hit by, cars, pedestrians, traffic islands*, etc. Generally, we’re pretty good at that too.
Without going into all the details of this rider-less bicycle, the traditional/classical computing system spots objects and hazards and the “biological” one (that tries to mimic the brain) controls balance and voice-control. The key is an innovative chip that allows the two to talk to each other: effectively meaning there are two “brains” controlling the vehicle.
From my perspective as a rider, the first thought that occurs to me is how complex the whole thing is - especially the challenge of getting the bike to balance. The obvious answer is to make it three or four wheeled. That would certainly make them easier to design and also more practical as they could then carry more.
All this stuff also makes me feel quite proud of the human brain. We can all learn to do this incredibly complex, yet to us fundamentally basic, thing called riding a bike. Once we’ve mastered it, we can do it without much conscious thought. In addition, as I ride along I can pass the time thinking about the weather, the view, the idiot in the car at the last junction and even, if the traffic’s not too busy, the complexities of AI…
Yes, the tech is stunning. Yes, it’s another example of mankind’s ability to solve extremely complex problems and doubtless the Chinese have learned a lot in the process, but what’s the killer app for a rider-less bike? Although they say this was a technical rather than an economic experiment, the capacity for its practical use is, I think, obvious, especially as a three/four-wheeler.
In the olden days, or so I’m informed by our increasingly aged marketing team, a young teenager delivered your groceries from the local store on a “butchers’ boy bike,” with a metal frame at the front to hold a cardboard box of goods. Low on pollution (unless they were delivering beans), efficient, good for the rider’s physical and mental health, these were a really sensible way to distribute fresh food and the like over short distances. Could they make a comeback, sans the riders? In our increasingly green world, it would be nice to think so…
Freddie Kydd, Be-IT
*for the pedants, I am well aware that a traffic island can’t actually hit someone, but you know what I mean.
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