In the not too distant future, you might be able to ride a bike without…well…actually riding it.
China has been working on an autonomous bicycle equipped with an artificial intelligence (AI) chip that allows it to navigate the roads on its own. What exactly can this smart bike do? It can stay upright without any help. It can change directions when commanded to do so. It can “see” people in front of it, so if there’s another bicyclist or a jogger, it can swerve to avoid that person.
The bike contains a neuromorphic chip that is modeled after the human brain. It’s that chip that allows the bicycle to learn how to perform tasks by analyzing a truckload of data.
“Existing robots can learn to open a door or toss a Ping-Pong ball into a plastic bin, but the training takes hours to days of trial and error,” reports The New York Times. “Even then, the skills are viable only in very particular situations. With help from neuromorphic chips and other new processors, machines [like China’s autonomous bike] could learn more complex tasks more efficiently, and be more adaptable in executing them.”
The Times points out that the bike uses the same type of technology that recognizes faces in your Facebook photos, and understands what you want when you talk to Siri. The downside (other than the fact that the bike apparently tips over sometimes) is that this type of technology isn’t very improvisational. It can’t learn new things as they occur. It can only analyze data presented to it, and needs a ton of examples in order to recreate a function.
“The bicycle is not learning; it is merely executing software that had been trained to handle specific tasks, including recognizing spoken words and avoiding obstacles,” The Times says. “But it is executing the software in an efficient way, which is important to vehicles that run on battery power. Researchers believe they can eventually merge the training process and the in-the-moment execution, so that a bicycle could learn as it goes, from just a few moments of experience.”
All of this sounds cool, but it’s still not totally clear what autonomous bicycles might be used for. The Times posits that AI bikes could be delivery vehicles in the future. Not only would that put people out of work, but it’s hard to imagine an autonomous bike delivering mail in say, Manhattan, where it would have to navigate crazy traffic, avoid reckless drivers, and somehow not hit a pedestrian.
Regardless, The Times says the Chinese researchers who built the bike believe that although it may not be the future of transportation, it shows us what the future of computer hardware will look like. Until then, we’ll just have to take a back seat.