Franklin Institute Awards

Look: it’s possibly the world’s most annoying, boring video. Turn the sound down, it’s a car driving in traffic with a siren howling.

Of course, if you look a little bit more closely, you might notice…nobody is driving! This is an exercise in robotics and computer vision, and it’s one of the achievements that is winning the Franklin Institute Awards this week. Any lucky Philadelphians might want to make it a point to visit the Franklin Institute (which was one of our favorite museums when we lived in Philly) this week — they have a slate of events coming up associated with handing out these prestigious awards. It’s not just robotics, either: miRNAs are recognized, as well as the structure and origin of nucleic acids, and the ocean’s effect on climate change, ultra cold physics, and artificial intelligence.

There’s something for everybody, so it’s a good time to think about stopping by.


  1. Martin Hutton says

    Absolutely frickin’ amazing! That is some impressive software…I can’t begin to imagine the number of problems the engineers had to solve…just staying in lane was hard enough a few years ago.

    It’s still a bit heavy on the brakes and doesn’t seem to “lead” with the steering at junctions. But give it 15yrs and the true “auto-automobile” will be available…if we’re not out of gas by then!

  2. says


    (Men whose names are great, I am writing you a letter
    That you will read perhaps If you have the time
    Men whose names are great, I don’t want to do that
    I am not on Earth To kill miserable Mankind…)

    Sirs, you who are called “great,”
    I am writing you a letter
    That you will read, perhaps,
    if you have the time.
    I have just received
    my military papers
    To go to war
    before Wednesday evening.
    Sirs, you who are called “great,”
    I don’t want to do that.
    I am not on earth
    to kill poor people.
    This is not meant to annoy you,
    but I must tell you:
    Wars are insane.
    The world has enough of them.

    Since I was born,
    I have seen brothers die.
    I have seen fathers leave,
    and children cry.
    Mothers have suffered too much
    while others prosper
    And live at their ease
    in spite of mud and blood.
    There are prisoners
    whose souls have been stolen,
    Whose wives have been stolen,
    and all their loved ones gone.
    Tomorrow, first thing in the morning,
    I will close the door
    On the past.
    I will go on the road.

    I will beg for my livelihood
    on land and sea,
    From the old to the new world,
    and I will say to people:
    Profit from life.
    Alleviate misery.
    All men are brothers.
    People of all countries:
    If it is necessary to spill blood,
    go spill your own.
    Sirs, you good apostles
    sirs, you who are called “great”:
    If you pursue me,
    inform your police
    That I will be unarmed,
    and they can shoot,
    And they can shoot.


    An excerpt from Boris Vian’s open letter to the Paris town councillor Paul Faber (English translation by Riccardo Venturi)

    No, Mr Faber, you should not look for an insult where it does not exist and, if you should find it, it is you who have put it there, I tell you. What I exactly mean does not allow misunderstanding: I have never wished to offend the veterans from both world wars, the Partisans (I have many friends among them) and the Victims of the war (and, among them, I had many friends, too). My insults are always frank and open-hearted, though very rare. I shall never insult people like myself, civilians who have been given a uniform only to be killed as things, and nothing more, and who have had their heads filled with empty words and pointless excuses. Only an idiot, not a hero, fights without knowing what is the fight for; a hero is he, who accepts death if he knows that it will be useful to the values he is defending. The Deserter of my song does not know why; who will explain it to him? I do not know from which war you are a veteran; but, if you are a veteran from the First world war, so you must admit that you have more talent for war than for peace. Those, who, just like me, were twenty years old in 1940, have been given a nice birthday present indeed. I do not pretend to be counted among the brave: I have been rejected for a heart disease, I have not fought, I have not been deported, I have not collaborated; and I have remained four years a poor, half-starved idiot in the crowd, and I could not understand why one needs explanations to understand what is perfectly clear. I am thirty-four today, and I want to tell you: should I be called to defend those whom I love, I would fight straight away. But should I be ordered to die by napalm in an ignoble war, as an obscure pawn in a fight the true reasons of which are merely political interests and manoeuvres, so I will desert and take to the bush. I will make my own war. The whole Country has risen up against the war of Indochina when everyone has become really aware of what it was for; and all the boys who have been slaughtered there believing they were ‘serving’ anything or anyone -as they were told-, well, I do not insult them. I do grieve for them. Among them, who knows, there were great painters or great musicians and, no doubt, a lot of good people. You see, when a war ends in one month only by the will of someone who cannot help resorting even to falsely ‘glorious’ words for his argumentations, of course one is led to believe, if ever he should not have fully understood it yet, that the war in question were not inevitable at all.

  3. defectiverobot says

    danley, you beate me to it. I was going to say “God is it’s co-pilot!”

    Still, I gotte say, that was cool. I got goosebumps when it stopped for passing cars, then made a perfect turn into traffic.

  4. says

    I think bullet points would help you out Boris.

    Yep. Definitely bullet points, and maybe a carriage return or two.

  5. Chemist says

    RE: #1, 5, and 6…
    This installation should be *required* on any car bearing a bumper sticker with the words: “In Case of The Rapture, This Car Will Be Un-manned”.

  6. Colin M says

    Lots of people here at Carnegie Mellon working on various autonomous vehicle projects. My co-worker has a bumper sticker that says “My other vehicle is unmanned.”

  7. says

    I think bullet points would help you out Boris.

    Yep. Definitely bullet points, and maybe a carriage return or two.

    Good point.

    I think e.e Cummings could probably use a little of your help too!

    e.e Cummings

    “next to of course god america i love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh say can you see by the dawn’s early my country ’tis of centuries come and go and are no more what of it we should worry in every language even deafanddumb thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry by jingo by gee by gosh by gum why talk of beauty what could be more beaut- iful than these heroic happy dead who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter they did not stop to think they died instead then shall the voice of liberty be mute?” He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

  8. Fernando Magyar says

    I’m all for developments in robotics and computer vision, that’s great. However despite the fact that I still drive a car myself, I’m completely against the propagation of the private automobile meme as represented by the status quo. Anyone who has the misfortune of having a daily commute on any of our roads should be able to understand my point of view. The system is broken and it can not be fixed, nor should it.
    Time for paradigm shifting away from this failed means of transporting individuals. Ride a bike or take a hike! No practical means of mass transport, too bad, look in the mirror and blame yourself.

  9. says

    I was talking to someone at UT Austin who participated in UTs DARPA Challenge entry. Their vehicle crashed into a carport because of a programming command that told the vehicle to “turn right and accelerate” when it should have told it to stop in a particular circumstance (a memory leak, I think.)

  10. Flamethorn says

    Can it see pedestrians and tell the difference between them staying on the sidewalk, deciding to run for it, or change their mind halfway across?

    Can it see someone waiting to turn into a busy road or change lanes and slow down to let them in?

    Does it have a “humans will be driving like idiots” subprogram that switches on when it’s raining or snowing? How well does it handle situations that are outside of its programming?

  11. Susan says

    Hmmm, I’m not writing very clearly. In #13, I meant, “UT’s entry in the DARPA Challenge.”

  12. hammerface says

    i’m not sure i quite got what was so amazing with this one. it was programmed and not controlled by remote, was that it? cos if it’s controlled remotely, then it ain’t that amazing. i mean Mythbusters do it when they get the chance, AND they blow stuff up for no apparent reason. this vid needs moar exploshuns!

  13. Azkyroth says

    PZ: how directly applicable do you suppose this research is to your long-term “robot squid” projects?

  14. October Mermaid says

    You know what would make that video even better? If the vehicle’s tires were crunching over mounds of human skulls and its searchlights were turned on, seeking out any remaining humans to enslave or destroy.

    Anyway, we’re doomed.

  15. says

    Does this mean every holiday we’ll be inundated with graphic advertisements from MADDR (Mothers Against Drunk Driving Robots)?

    ‘Cause unless these robots can also watch TV, I don’t see the campaign being all that successful.

    D’oh! Never mind. I’m just being stupid. If the robots can drive, I’m sure they could easily listen to the radio while doing it, so a radio campaign would work just fine. And they’ll probably have access to Us or Robot magazines at the mechanic’s office, so some print ads would capture that segment of the robot market.

    It’s all good.

  16. RamblinDude says

    Time for paradigm shifting away from this failed means of transporting individuals.

    Don’t worry, in a few years we’ll have auto-piloted flying cars! And then we’ll be in the future for real! And there will be world peace, and no hunger, and no global warming, and everyone will live to a hundred and fifty in perfect health, and superstitious nonsense will be a thing of the past, and…Oh, I can hardly wait!

  17. ARice says

    I was at all of the DARPA Challenges. All were very cool. One of the things I remember most is that Carnegie Mellon’s siren was obnoxious. Please, guys, find a different siren. This is the one thing everyone remembers about the C. M. car.


  18. Mark says

    Excellent driving, and I look forward to getting human drivers off the road; it’ll reduce the amount of damage to otherwise-perfectly-good machinery (and incidentally the screaming animals inside, too).

    As for those who think a “holy spirit” or something is in control, your primitive imaginary friends cannot drive a car, or do anything, in fact.

    Robots are better than God.

  19. says

    One of the things I remember most is that Carnegie Mellon’s siren was obnoxious.

    How about playing a jingle like an ice-cream van? It would have the advantage of attracting small, unpredictable, bipedal obstacles to avoid… or run over.

  20. Bill Arnold says

    You know what would make that video even better? If the vehicle’s tires were crunching over mounds of human skulls and its searchlights were turned on, seeking out any remaining humans to enslave or destroy.

    Then you want to see the Crusher video. Though it’s just destroying other machines, for now.