Two milestones, one message: fasten your seatbelt!

Self driving uber

Two important milestones were achieved within recent 15 days.

Milestone 1: The first driverless taxi fleet is already operational in Pittsburgh. On September 14, Uber announced that the world’s first Self-Driving Ubers are now on the road in the Steel City of Pittsburgh. As the company explains “We’re inviting our most loyal Pittsburgh customers to experience the future first. If a Self-Driving Uber is available, we’ll send it along with a safety driver up front to make sure the ride goes smoothly. Otherwise it’s uberX as usual…This pilot is a big step forward. Real-world testing is critical to the success of this technology. And creating a viable alternative to individual car ownership is important to the future of cities”.  Although a human “driver” will still be at the wheel to take control if needed, this milestone sets the commercialisation of driverless cars much closer than it was considered.

Uber’s cannot yet execute moves like changing lanes, requiring the human driver to intervene if a lane is blocked. At present, the autonomous cars do not travel faster than 35 miles per hour, although Uber is planning to increase this and to start making trips to Pittsburgh’s airport, which includes driving on a highway.

Milestone 2: The lowest error rate ever in speech recognition was achieved by Microsoft. On September 13, Xuedong Huang, Microsoft’s chief speech scientist, reported that in a recent benchmark evaluation against the industry standard Switchboard speech recognition task, Microsoft researchers achieved a word error rate (WER) of 6.3 percent, the lowest in the industry. Twenty years ago, the error rate of the best published research system had a WER of greater than 43 percent.

Some researchers now believe these technologies could soon reach a point where computers can understand the words people are saying about as well as another person would. The speech research is also significant to Microsoft’s artificial intelligence (AI) strategy of providing systems that can anticipate users’ needs instead of responding to their commands, and to the company’s overall ambitions for providing intelligent systems that can see, hear, speak and even understand, augmenting how humans work today.

As I used to say in each and every lecture I made for the fourth industrial revolution and the future of waste management, we are definitely on top of a tipping point! A tipping point is “a point at which an issue, idea, product, etc., crosses a certain threshhold and gains significant momentum, triggered by some minor factor or change”. The idea and the relevant products is the fourth industrial revolution and its related advances. Fasten your seatbelt, we are going to run faster than ever and we have already started to accelerate.

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