Autonomous Cars And Minecraft Have This In Common  

By Lance Eliot, the AI Trends Insider   Minecraft seems to be everywhere. Now over a decade old, the video game has reportedly attained more than 126 million monthly active players and has sold well beyond 200 million copies of the gaming software. Besides the game itself, there is plenty of merchandise to be had and lots of spin-offs.    […]

Autonomous Cars And Minecraft Have This In Common  

By Lance Eliot, the AI Trends Insider  

Minecraft seems to be everywhere. Now over a decade old, the video game has reportedly attained more than 126 million monthly active players and has sold well beyond 200 million copies of the gaming software. Besides the game itself, there is plenty of merchandise to be had and lots of spin-offs.   

What makes this particular game so enduring and endearing? There are lots of theories. One somewhat apparent aspect is that it is an exceedingly easy game to get started with. Unlike some online games that require gobs of hours invested before you can readily get underway and be productive in the game, the beauty of Minecraft could be said to be its simplicity at its core. Most people, young and old, can immediately start actively using the game upon the first login. 

Some also say that another strong point is that you can take the game as far as you want to go. In other words, those that want to just meander and take a lackadaisical approach can do so, while those that want to push the limits and make this into a nose grinding gut-wrenching “ordeal” (of the fun variety) are equally able to double down on that kind of a sports gaming experience.     

You might be surprised to know that there are some interesting parallels between aspects of self-driving cars and the game of Minecraft.   

Say what?    

Before jumping into the matter and mining for golden nuggets and some precious diamonds, let’s start with some handy background about the nature of self-driving cars.   

For my framework about AI autonomous cars, see the link here: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/framework-ai-self-driving-driverless-cars-big-picture/ 

Why this is a moonshot effort, see my explanation here: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/self-driving-car-mother-ai-projects-moonshot/   

For more about the levels as a type of Richter scale, see my discussion here: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/richter-scale-levels-self-driving-cars/   

For the argument about bifurcating the levels, see my explanation here: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/reframing-ai-levels-for-self-driving-cars-bifurcation-of-autonomy/ 

Understanding The Levels Of Self-Driving Cars   

As a clarification, 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 contend). 

Since semi-autonomous cars require a human driver, the adoption of those types of cars won’t be markedly different from 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 the public needs to be forewarned about a disturbing aspect that’s been arising lately, namely that despite 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. 

For why remote piloting or operating of self-driving cars is generally eschewed, see my explanation here: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/remote-piloting-is-a-self-driving-car-crutch/ 

To be wary of fake news about self-driving cars, see my tips here: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/ai-fake-news-about-self-driving-cars/ 

The ethical implications of AI driving systems are significant, see my indication here: http://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/ethically-ambiguous-self-driving-cars/ 

Be aware of the pitfalls of normalization of deviance when it comes to self-driving cars, here’s my call to arms: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/normalization-of-deviance-endangers-ai-self-driving-cars/   

Self-Driving Cars And Minecraft  

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. 

From a Minecraft player perspective, having the AI do all the driving of a car is handy when you want to be able to play Minecraft during a driving journey. Of course, a human driver ought not be playing the game while at the wheel of a car, and perhaps not even thinking about the game, since their attention should be entirely focused on safe driving. In any case, with AI doing the actual driving, human passengers can do as they wish while inside a self-driving car, including binging on playing Minecraft when doing a cross-country vacation road trip with the family.   

As a sneak-peek for the future of self-driving cars, besides having gobs of connectivity and bandwidth while riding in a self-driving car, some designs involve lining the interior walls and windows of the vehicle with essentially LED screens. You can generally blot out the outside world, and become cocooned inside the self-driving car. Imagine the kind of immersion into playing Minecraft that this might allow. 

When your self-driving car reaches the destination that you had specified, perhaps arriving at your office or maybe at the mall, envision how strange it will seem to disembark from your fully immersed Minecraft experience and be back in the real world. 

Kind of a The Matrix type of moment, for sure.   

Here are some interesting similarities worth contemplating.   

For more details about ODDs, see my indication at this link here: https://www.aitrends.com/ai-insider/amalgamating-of-operational-design-domains-odds-for-ai-self-driving-cars/ 

On the topic of off-road self-driving cars, here’s my details elicitation: https://www.aitrends.com/ai-insider/off-roading-as-a-challenging-use-case-for-ai-autonomous-cars/ 

I’ve urged that there must be a Chief Safety Officer at self-driving car makers, here’s the scoop: https://www.aitrends.com/ai-insider/chief-safety-officers-needed-in-ai-the-case-of-ai-self-driving-cars/ 

Expect that lawsuits are going to gradually become a significant part of the self-driving car industry, see my explanatory details here: http://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/self-driving-car-lawsuits-bonanza-ahead/   

The Sandbox Is A Crucial Metaphor   

Let’s start with a foundational aspect, namely that Minecraft is considered a sandbox video game. When you enter into the game, you are ostensibly in a new world or environment that allows you to wander around. Somewhat akin to having played in a sandbox as a child, you can play around and have fun, making new things, trying out new stuff, and opting to rework the playground to some degree based on your imagination and wherewithal. 

You can also explore without having to necessarily earn points per se or try to score a victory.   

Some liken this to being a non-game game, implying that unlike traditional games, there is no need to be a winner and there is not a grand fear of being a “loser” (well, just to clarify, there are aspects involving health and food, and potential threats from various hostile creatures such as spiders and zombies, but by-and-large you aren’t in a panic as in more stressful games).   

You can select various game modes, including survival mode, creative mode, adventure mode, and the like. This is what allows for ratcheting up from being an idle player that saunters around to instead deciding to strive for being a topnotch player and become known for your talent and versatility in navigating and succeeding at Minecraft in a highly competitive sporting fashion.   

Let’s revisit the sandbox notion in a different context. 

When you think about a self-driving car and what it is intended to do, the core function involves taking a driving journey and doing so safely. The AI driving system is not trying to score points or particularly win at something. 

Human drivers sometimes conceive of driving a car as a type of sport wherein they desperately seek to outmaneuver other cars and beat the clock by speeding down roadways and rushing red lights. The assumption for self-driving cars is that they will be operating in a completely lawful manner, obeying the rules of the road, being civil drivers, and making sure to drive legally.   

In that sense, the self-driving car is in the sandbox of our roadway infrastructure and intended to find its way from point A to point B. A passenger gets into a self-driving car, provides a destination, and the AI driving system tries to make sure that the vehicle safely reaches that destination. Normally, there is no race to do this. Sure, the self-driving car ought to be proceeding on a timely basis, and it ought to not dilly dally, on the other hand, it is not attempting to score a win, other than reaching the destination and doing so without having gotten into a car crash or otherwise done something disturbing along the way.   

I’ve predicted that we will eventually witness self-driving cars on actual racetracks in sporting competitions. Thus, the mild-mannered self-driving cars of today are going to also be those lean-and-mean race driving AI-based roadway speedsters (on closed tracks), showcasing the range of being able to “play” at driving (I use the word “play” cautiously since being at the wheel of a multi-ton vehicle is certainly not to be taken lightly and is a very serious and possibly deadly task).   

The First-Person Perspective   

While inside the Minecraft game as a player, you are usually inhabiting a character that walks, strides, swims or otherwise gets around in the sandbox environment. You can change up the character and also alter the appearance by applying customized “skins” or coverings on the character.   

Typically, you are seeing the environment in a first-person mode, meaning that you see the surroundings as though you were walking around a wooded area or park of some kind. You see ahead of you some trees and bushes. Perhaps over to your right is a small lake. When you build something like a house or hut, you are watching as your limbs pick-up objects such as a pickaxe, a shovel, shears, and the like.   

You can switch into a third-person perspective, as though omnipresent and able to see yourself from a distance, though much of the time it is relatively common to be in the first-person mode.   

Let’s see how this relates to self-driving cars. 

An AI driving system makes use of a variety of sensors that are mounted onto or into the self-driving car, including video cameras, radar, LIDAR, ultrasonic units, thermal imaging devices, and so on. These are akin to the eyes and ears of the AI, providing data about the driving scene. By inspecting the data that is collected from the sensors, the AI attempts to figure out where nearby cars are, and where pedestrians are standing, etc.   

This observation will normally be done on a first-person basis. It is as though the AI is standing amidst the self-driving car and looking outward. The data showcases what is around the self-driving car. In that manner of perspective, the insider jargon is to refer to the self-driving car as the ego vehicle (the word “ego” meaning from the perspective of the vehicle that the rest of the world emanates from). As the vehicle moves along, the AI is recalibrating the surroundings based on looking outward from the self-driving car.   

Human drivers are of course doing the same kind of first-person assessment of the driving scene. You let your eyes look forward and see what is ahead of the vehicle. You look over your shoulder to see what is behind you. All along, you are calculating the world based on where you are, and where everything else exists as related to where you are.   

In your mind’s eye, you can switch to a third-person perspective while driving a car. For example, you can try to imagine what a pedestrian standing at the street corner is seeing as your car makes the turn at the corner. They presumably see you at the wheel and watch as your car tightly makes the turn. I dare say that most of us do not do much third-person perspective thinking while driving, though it certainly crosses the mind from time to time. 

For self-driving cars, the future is likely to add the ability to do a third-person perspective in several ways. One is that self-driving cars will be communicating with each other via V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) electronic communications. This allows one self-driving car to send out a message to other nearby self-driving cars, perhaps warning that there is debris up ahead in the middle of the road. Other AI driving systems that get this message would be forewarned to be wary of the debris.   

The same V2V can somewhat provide a third-person perspective to another AI driving system. Suppose a self-driving car observes that a self-driving car up ahead has a bicycle mounted on the rear bumper and the bike is poorly tied down, ready to fall off. The AI driving system of this trailing vehicle can send a V2V to the up ahead self-driving car and let it know that things are amiss. That would be a semblance of being able to construct a third-person perspective.   

Even more so in the third-person is the anticipated use of drones.   

It is likely that self-driving cars will come with an included drone. During a driving journey, the AI can launch the drone. This drone could then be flown further ahead, perhaps miles up ahead, and figure out what the traffic situation is. By using the drone, the AI can figure out what might be a prudent path to get to the desired destination.   

It’s A Blocks World   

One of the most startling aspects for those that first see Minecraft is that it consists primarily of blocks, as in the notion of Lego-like blocks or somewhat relatively simple 3D computer-generated objects (these blocks are considered a cornerstone of the environment, malleable in many ways, and composed together into making overall structures and the like). 

The reason that there is astonishment at the use of blocks is that in today’s super-duper graphics and the ability to have even the cheapest computers portray photorealistic scenes, the aspect that this worldwide famous game is using the primitives of blocks seems like an outmoded and altogether outdated way of doing contemporary video or online games. 

How can a blocks-based game be popular in an era when smooth graphics that can make computer-simulated worlds seem like the real world be something that people are willing and eager to engage in?   

Just think of all the strenuous effort by those that have generally perfected computer graphics software that can make the hair on animated animals move as though it is the real thing, or that can have a faked bird fluttering around the sky, and you would swear it was a real hawk or eagle.   

And yet, Minecraft is using blocks. You could argue that this is what makes Minecraft so popular.   

If the game attempted to portray a real-world setting, in all its true physical characteristics, you would likely no longer feel like you were in a playground or sandbox. All of that intrusive real-world stuff would prevent you from being immersed into a fantasyland atmosphere. The blocks too are an instantaneous harbinger of childhood and being able to play at will in a sandbox of one kind or another.   

Before we go too far into the philosophical realm, let’s get back to the self-driving car’s side of things.   

I earlier mentioned that the AI driving system is reliant upon a suite of sensors. Those sensors are collecting data and the AI has to analyze the data to try and turn the raw data into something intelligible about the driving scene. For example, a visual image captured by the forward-looking camera might indicate that there is a large object just ahead of the self-driving car.   

What is this object? What is the object doing? 

The AI software uses various algorithms and potentially Machine Learning, a computational pattern matching capacity, to classify the object as a car. This identified car is ahead of the self-driving car. Based on multiple readings from the sensors, this car ahead of the self-driving car is moving, doing so at a speed of say 35 miles per hour.   

To keep track of the surroundings, most AI driving systems have a type of special internal database or virtual world that is crafted and maintained during a driving journey. 

This virtual world might indicate that there is a car ahead of the self-driving car. This identified car is labeled as a car and considered in front of the self-driving car. Furthermore, the object, this car, is listed as moving forward and doing so at an existing speed of 35 miles per hour. Realize that there is no need to have a picture per se of the car that is ahead of the self-driving car, at least not as needed in the virtual world. Instead, the virtual world has a denotation of an object, along with the so far identified characteristics.   

What is the purpose of this self-driving car virtual world?  

Assume that the AI driving system needs to make a right turn up ahead. Via the virtual world, the AI is also crafting an internally calculated map, or overlaying the virtual objects onto a preexisting provided map, and has to figure out what actions the self-driving car should take to make the right turn. If the road is a single lane, the other car ahead of the self-driving car has to be considered in the calculative efforts of when and how to make the right turn. 

So what?   

Well, guess what, this virtual world is akin to a block’s world.   

Yes, the AI driving system is using a type of block world to keep track of the real-world. Those houses at the side of the road are marked in the blocks world as houses, but there is no need to have pictures of them and nor keep track of their assorted details (such as whether the house is a two-story or one story, doesn’t much matter during the driving of the vehicle). 

In perhaps a twist of irony, Minecraft makes use of a blocks world to get away from the real-world, while an AI driving system uses a blocks world to try and rapidly and readily keep track of the real-world. 

Mind blown.   

Conclusion   

There are quite a number of additional parallels that can be made between self-driving cars and Minecraft (I’ll do more if this sparks interest from readers).   

This starter list has hopefully provided a quick glimpse so that you can begin to see how they compare.   

One might say that by playing Minecraft, you are indirectly getting ready to learn about self-driving cars. In fact, perhaps the children playing Minecraft today will grow up to become the AI developers and engineers that will push further forward on advances in AI-based true self-driving cars. 

Yes, you can envision it already, those youngsters of today that will soon enough be punching out self-driving cars from the rudiments of extremely versatile redstone (that’s a Minecraft insider quip, glad to say). 

Copyright 2021 Dr. Lance Eliot. This content is originally posted on AI Trends. 

[Ed. Note: For reader’s interested in Dr. Eliot’s ongoing business analyses about the advent of self-driving cars, see his online Forbes column: https://forbes.com/sites/lanceeliot/] 

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