Waymo reportedly applies to put autonomous cars on California roads with no safety drivers

Waymo has become the second company to apply for the newly-available permit to deploy autonomous vehicles without safety drivers on some California roads, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. It would be putting its cars — well, minivans — on streets around Mountain View, where it already has an abundance of data.

The company already has driverless driverless cars in play over in Phoenix, as it showed in a few promotional videos last month. So this isn’t the first public demonstration of its confidence.

California only just made it possible to grant permits allowing autonomous vehicles without safety drivers on April 2; one other company has applied for it in addition to Waymo, but it’s unclear which. The new permit type also allows for vehicles lacking any kind of traditional manual controls, but for now the company is sticking with its modified Chrysler Pacificas. Hey, they’re practical.

The recent fatal collision of an Uber self-driving car with a pedestrian, plus another fatality in a Tesla operating in semi-autonomous mode, make this something of an awkward time to introduce vehicles to the road minus safety drivers. Of course, it must be said that both of those cars had people behind the wheel at the time of their crashes.

Assuming the permit is granted, Waymo’s vehicles will be limited to the Mountain View area, which makes sense — the company has been operating there essentially since its genesis as a research project within Google. So there should be no shortage of detail in the data, and the local authorities will be familiar with the people necessary for handling any issues like accidents, permit problems, and so on.

No details yet on what exactly the cars will be doing, or whether you’ll be able to ride in one. Be patient.

Google’s ‘Semantic Experiences’ let you play word games with its AI

Google does a great deal of research into natural language processing and synthesis, but not every project has to be a new Assistant feature or voice improvement. The company has a little fun now and then, when the master AI permits it, and today it has posted a few web experiments that let you engage with its word-association systems in a playful way.

First is an interesting way of searching through Google Books, that fabulous database so rarely mentioned these days. Instead of just searching for text or title verbatim, you can ask questions, like “Why was Napoleon exiled?” or “What is the nature of consciousness?”

It returns passages from books that, based on their language only, are closely associated with your question. And while the results are hit and miss, they are nice and flexible. Sentences answering my questions appeared even though they were not directly adjacent to key words or particularly specific about doing so.

I found, however, it’s not a very intuitive way to interact with a body of knowledge, at least for me. When I ask a question, I generally want to receive an answer, not a competing variety of quotes that may or may not bear on your inquiry. So while I can’t really picture using this regularly, it’s an interesting way to demonstrate the flexibility of the semantic engine at work here. And it may very well expose you to some new authors, though the 100,000 books included in the database are something of a mixed bag.

The second project Google highlights is a game it calls Semantris, though I must say it’s rather too simple to deserve the “-tris” moniker. You’re given a list of words and one in particular is highlighted. You type the word you most associate with that one, and the words will reorder with, as Google’s AI understands it, the closest matches to your word on the bottom. If you moved the target word to the bottom, it blows up a few words and adds some more.

It’s a nice little time waster, but I couldn’t help but feel I was basically just a guinea pig providing testing and training for Google’s word association agent. It was also pretty easy — I didn’t feel much of an achievement for associating “water” with “boat” — but maybe it gets harder as it goes on. I’ve asked Google if our responses are feeding into the AI’s training data.

For the coders and machine learning enthusiasts among you, Google has also provided some pre-trained TensorFlow modules, and of course documented their work in a couple of papers linked in the blog post.