This past week I attended the 4th Annual MediaX Conference at Stanford. MediaX is the organization that strives to connect industry with the interdisciplinary research on interactive media going on at Stanford in 18 different schools and research centers.
There were many interesting ideas on show during the day and a half event, but the presentation that stood out was by Computer Science Professor Sebastian Thrun when he told the story of Stanford's participation and victory in the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. In 2004, DARPA (ie the US military) had set a challenge for an autonomously driven car (ie no human driver either within the car or by remote control) to complete a 100 mile course across the dessert. The participants would be given GPS coordinates 2 hours before the race to input into their systems after which they would have no direct control over the vehicle.
In 2004, the best performing car completed 5% of the course. In 2005, 5 teams completed the entire course. So in one year performance was improved by 20X (not the boring 2x we are used to under Moore's Law) and this was achieved by a group of undergraduates! That's a sobering thought when we are trying to extrapolate from now to the future. Even more impressively, Professor Thrun has set his team the challenge of successfully having an autonomously driven car from downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles by October 7th, 2007.