Taxis-4U Taxis for you Banner Logo

Is technology going to replace the human brain anytime soon #Taxis4u


A little about me first, I spent more than 20 years in IT, specifically software development but also a lot of time in hardware performance tuning, a lot of the projects I got involved with had not been done before and required a lot performance tweaking to work correctly, sometimes the performance issues were the issues that sank a project and never got it out of the pilot stage.

You can spend a lot of time and money trying to get 10% more performance, ask any person that is a good runner, improving times becomes harder and harder the more you do, the improvements are smaller and smaller over time, hardware/software performance is the same.

So recently I passed the Knowledge of London to become a Black Cab driver (Taxi driver), the last stage of my journey is to do what is called the suburbs, these are difficult from the perspective that whilst doing the knowledge you rely more and more on information stored in your brain and less and less on the information around you like maps and other types of information like online maps, google maps etc, suburbs take you right back to where you started the knowledge, learning runs.

So off I went trying to find the first run, this was easy because all the suburb runs starts in green badge areas (for those that don't know a green badge driver knows in detail approximately 134 square miles of London, this is our main working area, we are expected to know this area very well, so much so that we don't need to rely on technology in that area to navigate round). So finding the start of the runs is easy for someone who has passed the knowledge, they should be able to tell you every road and turn to get to that start point from any other part of the green badge area. So I am in Norwood high street, thinking ok I know the next 5 roads what am I going to do from here, I had a look at the map, looked at the run, got confused straight away because there was two Croydon roads on my route that were not joined together so had to chase the run further to see which was the correct one and which was the wrong one.

I decide to put google maps into sat-nav mode to see if it can either give me a better route or keep up with me, it failed within 5 roads, the performance was woeful, it left me with the feeling that it is going to be a long time before sat-nav comes anywhere close to the skill of someone that has passed the Knowledge.

I put my IT hat on and thought what are the issues here with sat-nav, the first one is a glaring problem with no simple answers, performance, I believe that the Google Maps sat-nav sitting on my iPhone was running about 50% of the speed it would need to, to keep up specifically on more densely packed roads, performance is a real issue and it will be one of the reasons why certain technology companies give drivers iPhones and others Android devices, this is so they can control to some degree what is installed and running on the device, this gives them some performance gains, these are very variable, a rough figure it will buy them something like a 10%-20% gain in performance if they have that type of control, so they are well off the 100% gain they really need.

Lets look at the history of computers for a moment, back in the 80' and 90's there was rule called Moore's law it talked about a doubling of performance every 18 months in technology, this rule broke in the 90's but most people did not notice, they saw chip performance continuing to go up but actually they did not, what happened is the speed remained the same, but the processors did more with each cycle, from memory 800MHz was the top speed, everything above that is clock doubling/tripling etc. Adding more cores to the processor so it could multi-task to some degree, but the internal core of the processor has not got much faster in the last 10 years and cannot because of the laws of physics, power and heat are the two main issues. You need to put more power in, make them faster, cool them quicker because the faster they run the hotter they get.

So back to the iPhone/Android issue, throwing more memory in this devices helps somewhat, but they need much better processors to really deal with the sat-nav requirement, remember a lot of this technology is developed in America where most roads are on a grid system, so sat-nav's don't have to work that hard over there, come to Cities like London, Paris, Rome where are road systems are up to two thousand years old and sat-nav just does not cut it.

There are other issues as well like road closures, I did a run this morning and one road in Croydon was closed and it required 10 roads to get me back to the right place, really not sure how well technology would have dealt with that issue especially if it was a driverless car.

I felt relieved when I did not have to rely on technology or maps, so once back in the green badge area I was much more comfortable could focus on driving much much better.

I can't see technology doing a better job than a cabbie in my lifetime (which hopefully is at least another 20 years), it would require much better equipment, it would require much more up to date information about roads that are closed, this includes roads that are closed because of accidents so very up to date information, this is not going to happen anytime soon. Technology companies would have to use dedicated hardware and software to try to improve the performance.

The knowledge is still today a significant advantage over technology in my opinion.

It's worth noting at this point the Google sat-nav algorithm that most apps use, will provide a route that is the quickest, not shortest, so when getting that fare estimate from Heathrow to Brentwood your route will almost certainly be a 56 mile journey round the M25, A Black Cab will 20 miles shorter unless you specify you want to go round the M25.

Written August 2015.

Update May 2020

I have now been driving a Taxi for 5 years, I am conveniced even more now that sat-nav's cannot do my job effectively, the distraction of the device is a safety issue for starters, anyone driving should have both eyes on the road, not be distracted by a device telling you what to do next, I still write software today and some of that is mapping software, I understand how the algorithm that calculates routes work, loosly based around the dijkstra algorithm, Google and other sat-nav code for the most part provide routes that are the quickest, not shortest as I mentioned in the blog above, this is still the case today. A good system should provide both the quickest and shortest with distance and approximate times and allow the customer to choose what they prefer.