Friday, June 28, 2024

Driverless Cars in Mid-2024: A Niche, A Great Future, or Stalling Out?

Autonomous vehicles, through thrown off their horse (strange pun intended) years ago, have not gone away, and aren’t even out of the news as artificial hearts have long been.  What has been happening with them?

The largest recent news item was “Feds are investigating Waymo driverless cars after reports of crashes, traffic violations” (Corina Vanek Natalie Neysa Alund, USA Today, May 16th).  The National Highway Safety Administration got “reports of nearly two dozen incidents where a Waymo vehicle was the sole vehicle operating during a collision or the driving system allegedly violated traffic laws.”  There were no injuries, but “17 involved crashes or fires,” and the automated driving system “was either engaged through the incident, or, in certain cases when supervised by an in-vehicle test driver,” it “disengaged in the moments just before an incident occurred.”  Waymo gave itself a vote of confidence, with a spokesperson saying “we are proud of our performance and safety record over tens of millions of autonomous miles driven”; additionally, “according to data released by Waymo in December 2023… which was peer-reviewed by experts outside the company, Waymo vehicles were involved in 0.4 collisions with injuries per million miles driven, compared with humans who were involved in 2.78.”  This story graphically shows how autonomous vehicles are being held to vastly higher standards.

Travelers are showing an interest in “San Francisco’s Hot Tourist Attraction:  Driverless Cars” (Lauren Sloss, The New York Times, May 22nd).  There they “have been operating commercially since August,” though only through Waymo, as “popular pickup and drop-off locations” include “the Ferry Building, Pier 39, Coit Tower, and the Japantown Peace Plaza.”  They are “all-electric Jaguar I PACEs,” and are accessed through an app.  Trips are remotely monitored.  Although different in some ways, “perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of a first-time Waymo ride is how quickly it feels normal.”

A company not doing as well is the subject of “The Very Slow Restart of G.M.’s Cruise Driverless Car Business” (Yiwen Lu, The New York Times, May 30th).  General Motors is still using its “sprawling complex in Warren, Mich.,” but “G.M.’s driverless future looks a lot further away today than it did a year ago,” before “a Cruise driverless car hit and dragged a pedestrian for 20 feet on a San Francisco street, causing severe injuries.”  Since then, it has “slowed its breakneck development to a crawl,” and, per a consultant, “catching up with Waymo technologically is going to take three to five years at best.”  Yet GM’s CEO said the subsidiary “has made tangible progress.”

Meanwhile, we saw “Waymo, Zoox expand autonomous ride-hailing operations despite recent AV setbacks” (Jordyn Grzelewski, Emerging Tech Brew, June 11th).  Zoox is moving from three cities to five, but is only testing; Waymo “revealed that it expanded its ride-hailing service area in Metro Phoenix by 90 square miles, bringing its total service area to 315,” and as well as San Francisco, “operates… in Los Angeles, and is testing in Austin.”

For now, Waymo is the only normally available option.  But another competitor, nation-sized, is emerging, as “China Is Testing More Driverless Cars Than Any Other Country” (Keith Bradsher, The New York Times, June 13th).  In the city of Wuhan, “a fleet of 500 taxis navigated by computers, often with no safety drivers in them for backup, buzz around,” operated by “tech giant Baidu.”  No mention here, though, of a date when paying customers can ride in them.  That seems better though, than another major country, as, although resumed in March, “last fall, Japan suspended its test of driverless golf carts that travel seven miles per hour after one of them hit the pedal of a parked bicycle,” causing no injuries. 

All of this is much the same as 2023’s reports, and largely like the past five years’ worth.  While Waymo is piling up miles and a record, the others are too often stopped by small mishaps.  Companies’ levels of caution are based on the correct perception that such blips unduly scare people.  However, as before, we are paying too little attention to the upside of driverless technology.  Over 40,000 died in American car crashes last year alone, compared with zero in the accidents above.  A tenuous niche has been established – a great future autonomous vehicles still have, if we allow that.  Will we get to the point where extensive testing efforts are not halted for months by the likes of hitting a bicycle pedal?  The answer to that question is more important than any possible driverless technology improvement.  The choice, once again, is ours.

Friday, June 14, 2024

Five Weeks of Artificial Intelligence – Where Is It Now?

A lot has happened with AI over the past several weeks.  I’m not talking about projections, assumptions, justified or other worries, 100-to-1 price-to-earnings ratio stock run-ups, market capitalizations, self-serving representations, CEO hijinks, and other things at the fringes of substantive news making up the great bulk of writing on the technology.  There is real stuff here, so much that I’m calling this piece an expanded edition, appropriate since I won’t be posting next week.

The oldest article is “The great AI power grab” (The Economist, May 11th).  It addresses the “awful lot of electricity” the software will need, and asks “where will it come from?.”  With “Dominion Energy, one of America’s biggest utilities” being “frequently” asked for “several gigawatts,” when the company has only 34 installed, it’s getting up there.  That power is consumed “at a steady rate,” regardless of sunlight and wind conditions.  It has already started affecting AI companies’ choices of location, and will do so more as long as anyone anywhere has what they need.

It took some digging to show, on my last AI post, what actual sales were, but how about number of transactions?  That is the metric used in “The 10 most popular AI companies businesses are paying for” (Jordan Hart, Business Insider, May 12th).  The list, which includes “specialized tools” as well as “generative AI,” in order, are OpenAI, Midjourney, Anthropic,, ElevenLabs, Perplexity AI, Instill AI,,, and Pinecone.  I found it noteworthy how many are not household words, even in my house.  It shows not only that there are firms being quietly effective, but that some with the noisiest press releases aren’t selling to many people at all.

“As A.I. search ramps up, publishers worry” (Andrew Ross Sorkin, New York Times DealBook, May 15th) shows cause for concern among those using an “ad-focused business model.”  They are fearful, as “AI Overviews will give more prominence to A.I.-generated results, essentially pushing website links farther down the page, and potentially depriving those non-Google sites of traffic.”  They will need to work this out, as the presence of AI does not please everyone.

Something remarkably lost in the outpouring of manufacturer claims got its own article: “Silicon Valley’s A.I. Hype Machine” (Julia Angwin, The New York Times, May 19th).  Although in early 2023 “leading researchers asked for a six-month pause in the development of larger systems of artificial intelligence, fearing that the systems would become too powerful,” now “the question is… whether A.I. is too stupid and unreliable to be useful.”  Results have lagged the previous intensity, but corporate statements haven’t – for example, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, the week before, had “promised he would unveil “new stuff” that “feels like magic to me,”” but delivered only “a rather routine update.”  One “cryptocurrency researcher” asserted that AI companies “do a poor job of much of what people try to do with them” and “can’t do the things their creators claim they one day might.”  The author agreed that “some of A.I.’s greatest accomplishments,” such as its 2023 law bar exam performance critical to perception of AI being amazingly high quality turning out to be in the 48th percentile instead of the 90th as stated, “seem inflated.”  The technology, per Angwin, “is feared as an all-powerful being,” but now seems “more like a bad intern.”  There will be growing discontent about blatant exaggerations as products fail to meet the stunning standards we were told to expect by now.

The big May story, which many probably confused with higher AI sales, was “Nvidia, Powered by A.I. Boom, Reports Soaring Revenues and Profits” (Don Clark, The New York Times, May 22nd).  For this leading supplier, “revenue was $26 billion for the three months that ended in April, surpassing its $24 billion estimate in February and tripling sales from a year earlier for the third consecutive quarter.  Net income surged sevenfold to $5.98 billion.”  These numbers show how much more companies such as OpenAI have bought than they have sold.

A related area was the subject of “OpenAI Insiders Warn of a ‘Reckless’ Race for Dominance” (Kevin Roose, The New York Times, June 4th).  Per “a group” there, the firm, “racing to build the most powerful A.I. systems ever created,” “published an open letter… calling for leading A.I. companies, including OpenAI, to establish greater transparency and more protections for whistle-blowers.”  That firm, “still recovering from an attempted coup last year” and “facing legal battles with content creators who have accused it of stealing copyrighted works to train its models,” has big issues to go with its big chip purchases.

For June, the largest news item so far has been “Apple Jumps Into A.I. Fray With Apple Intelligence” (Tripp Mickle, The New York Times, June 10th).  This company, ancient and entrenched by the standards of its industry, “revealed plans to bring (AI) to more than a billion iPhone users around the world,” including “a major upgrade for Siri, Apple’s virtual assistant.”  This business decision has a huge possible upside for AI, as it could “add credibility to a technology that has more than a few critics, who worry that it is mistake-prone and could add to the flood of misinformation already on the internet.”  That would close some of OpenAI’s sales-to-purchases gap – I don’t say “will,” since, per Forbes Daily on June 12th, “to utilize these AI features, iPhone users will have to wait until the iOS 18 operating system becomes available later this year,” which, per the Angwin story above, seems less than a sure thing.

It has been slow on the national regulatory front lately, so we are seeing “States Take Up A.I. Regulation Amid Federal Standstill” (Cecilia Kang, The New York Times, June 10th).  Although, per the Institute for Technology Law and Policy’s director, “clearly there is a need for harmonized federal legislation,” current and anticipated violations are prodding other governments to quicker action.  “Lawmakers in California last month advanced about 30 new measures on artificial intelligence aimed at protecting consumers and jobs,” including “rules to prevent A.I. tools from discriminating in housing and health care services” and ones that “also aim to protect intellectual property and jobs.”  Legislation has already passed in Colorado and Tennessee, the first against “discrimination,” and the second, through the snappily named “ELVIS act,” guarding “musicians from having their voice and likenesses used in A.I.-generated content without their explicit consent.”

Two AI achievements have reached the present, as described in “This is, like, really nice” (Vlad Savov, Bloomberg Tech Daily, June 11th).  Here, even though “the breathless bluster about AI changing industries, jobs and lifestyles has obviously not been met by reality,” it has come up with the “Descript editing tool” for audio files, which “eliminates pauses, verbal fillers like “like” and “um,” redundant retakes and anything else that’s not essential.”  Listening to its end results, the author “couldn’t tell where the seams were,” and noted that when “everything takes far longer to edit than its actual running time,” “automating the process is invaluable.”  The second was “AI noise cancelling” with “the Audeze Filter,” “a smartphone-sized Bluetooth conference speaker” that “effectively cancels even unpredictable and high-pitched noises, such as the crying of a baby,” and in a demonstration “a cacophonous cafĂ© was made tranquil with the flip of a switch.”  Not world domination, but perhaps it can help with wedding audiotapes damaged by unwanted sounds.

To end a bit lighter, new technologies get us new word usages, with one of the latest in “First Came ‘Spam.’  Now, With A.I., We’ve Got ‘Slop’” (Benjamin Hoffman, The New York Times, June 11th).  The author identified that as “a broad term that has developed some traction in reference to shoddy or unwanted A.I. content in social media, art, books, and, increasingly, in search results.”  As a two-years-ago “early adopter of the term” was quoted, “Society needs concise ways to talk about modern A.I. – both the positives and the negatives.  ‘Ignore that email, it’s spam,’ and ‘Ignore that article, it’s slop,’ are both useful lessons.”  And so it will be.  Beyond that, though, we have no idea.

Friday, June 7, 2024

The Lukewarm Reports Continue: Plenty of New Jobs, but AJSN’s Latent Demand Is Up to 16.8 Million, with Unemployment and Other Key Figures Worse

This morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary was important for other observers and me for different reasons.  Most were concerned with whether the job market was cooling off, meaning that if it was, we might see lower interest rates sooner.  They got a mixed result – while the number of net new nonfarm payroll positions again beat expectations, coming in at 272,000 instead of 180,000 or 190,000, seasonally adjusted unemployment broke upward out of a 10-month range to 4.0%.  I was looking to both the second of these and other figures, which taken together give us more insight than any one or two can provide.

There, the results were more bad than good.  Unadjusted joblessness rose 0.2% to 3.7%, mostly not for seasonality.  We reached 6.6 million adjusted jobless, up 100,000.  The count of people out of work for 27 weeks or longer also hiked 100,000, to 1.4 million.  The two measures of people with jobs and those also officially jobless, the employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate, fell 0.1% and 0.2% to reach 60.1% and 62.5%.  The number of people working, unadjusted, fell 249,000 to 161,341,000. 

On the plus side, the count of those not interested in working shed 667,000 to 94,413,000.  Those working part-time for economic reasons or keeping less than full-time employment while looking for something with more hours lost 100,000 to 4.4 million.  Average private nonfarm payroll earnings rose 12 cents, more than inflation this time, to $34.91. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the measure showing how many additional positions could be quickly filled if all knew they were easy and routine to get, increased almost 800,000 to reach the following:


The largest contributor to higher latent demand was people available for work but not looking for it over the past year, which added almost 400,000 more than last time to the metric.  Most of the rest of the increase was from unemployment itself, but those discouraged and those wanting work but not available for it now also added significant amounts.  Compared with a year before, the AJSN has also gone up, mostly from official unemployment, just over 400,000.  The share of the AJSN from unemployment rose 0.3% to 33.4%.

With all those new jobs, which the reduced number of people not interested more than absorbed, why can’t I rate this report higher?  Adding to the preponderance of evidence from the second through fourth paragraphs above, and the worsened AJSN, are the smaller categories therein.  There will be little discussion elsewhere about the effect of more people discouraged, not looking for the previous year, and temporarily unavailable, but they conceal a lot of people not making it in today’s market, new jobs notwithstanding.  Just as the count of those claiming they do not want a job decreases during truly good times, fewer people turn up in these smaller groupings when they see employment opportunities they like.  If they were counted as unemployed, their effect would be on front pages. 

Overall, we’re no longer in our best job market times.  That 272,000 can only go so far.  The turtle, last month, stayed right where he was.