Monday, January 09, 2017

Now, to go with the empathic gas pump, the empathic car

A couple of months ago, it was BP’s new interactive gas pump, Miles – get it? Miles? – that was going to buddy up with you. Because, heaven forbid, you should have a moment to yourself when you’ve got your finger on the gas pumping trigger, a moment when you can entertain both high-falutin (what’s the meaning of life) and low brow (wonder what Gigi Hadid is really like?) thoughts, a moment when you can just stop and smell the gas fumes.

But, now, having an empathic gas pump is not quite enough. At least not for the folks at Toyota who, at last week’s CES tech gizmo show in Las Vegas, previewed an empathic car.

You’ve had a frustrating day at work; it plays soft music and lowers the temperature. You’re lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood; it offers to take over the driving. You start to nod off at the wheel; it taps you on the shoulder and starts up a conversation.

This unconventional interplay between the driver and automobile is central to concept cars that Honda and Toyota unveiled at the annual CES technology conference in Las Vegas this week. In the not-so-distant future, vehicles will not only be safer or more efficient. They will be our companion, watching our every move.

These cars, which only exist today as partially functional concepts, will use powerful artificial intelligence systems to memorize and store information about every passengers’ likes and dislikes, how they speak, and the places they frequent, all to make decisions the car feels are in the riders’ interest. (Source: Washington Post)

A car making decisions that it “feels are in the riders’ interest”?

First off, I really don’t feel that a car is, well, going to feel anything. But that may just be human-ist me having a robot-phobe semantic quibble with our not-quite-yet-human-but-any-day-now brethren. I mean, come on, just because their intelligence may be artificial, it doesn’t mean that they are.

And as for the “riders’ best interest”, would that be the riders’ best interest in terms of what the riders may want or think they want at the moment, or the riders’ absolute best interest in terms of health, wealth, and the pursuit of true happiness.

Just think.

You’re tootling down the pike, and your car detects that you’re hungry. Does it pull over at the next stop, even though what’s there is Arby’s and Cinnabon? (If you’ve ever driven the NY State Thruway, you know what I’m talkin’ about here…) Does it wait to stop at a place where something that’s at least modestly edible will be on order – like a Fresh City on the Mass Pike? Or does it make a decision in the best interest of the riders’ health and refuse to pull over until car, driver, and riders arrive home and can access a boneless, skinless chicken breast and a cuke?

The auto industry is, apparently, in hot-foot pursuit of making the time you spend in your car “a hyper-personal experience.”

They’re trying to figure it out because things are changing fast.

With more options out there – Zipcar, Uber – people are opting out of car ownership all together. So, if they can get the hearts and minds of car owners, and get car owners to befriend, and maybe even – gulp! – fall a bit head over wheels with their vehicles, the auto industry will be all for it.

Toyota’s Concept-i car is part of the brave new automotive world.

Drivers who approach Toyota’s Concept-i car will see “hello” projected on the car door, a greeting from Yui, an artificial intelligence bot that designers call “the person who rides shotgun with you.” Inside, the car will collect a trove of real-time data, such as pupil dilation, perspiration rate and vocal tone, to assess the driver’s emotional state and alter the car to better fit one’s mood. Once Yui learns preferences for music, temperature, seat position and other features, it will automatically adjust settings before the driver even climbs in.

Yui will also scroll through social media channels to create “serendipitous” moments, such as recognizing that friends have checked into a local restaurant and suggesting a stop there to grab a bite as well.

Hey, I like serendipitous moment as much as the next guy. Why just yesterday at the hardware store, I ran into some old friends that I haven’t had more than a run-into-on-the-street conversation with for quite a while. Since, once they’d purchased their sponges and I’d picked up my boot mat, we realized that none of us had anything better to do, they ended up coming over and hanging out for a while. And it all came without the help of smartphone, social media, or empathic car. How about that?

Honda has something similar to the Concept-i up their sleeve. It’s the NeuV.

“The whole philosophy behind it is to create a much more emotional, human connection,” said Nick Renner, the NeuV project leader.

I actually enjoy making emotional, human connections with humans. And with animals, too.

But I don’t really care to make an emotional, human connection with a car. This has never been my idea of the ideal. I mean, I liked my VW Beetle and all that, but it wasn’t exactly a Herbie the Love Bug sort of “relationship.” And don’t get me going on My Mother the Car.

Blessedly, the truly empathic concept cars won’t be available for another decade or so.

By that point, I’ll no doubt be equipped with sensors that can call in a drone when I need transporting from one spot to the next. I’ll take the option that doesn’t require me to make small talk and share back- stories with the drone… And I sure won’t want the empathic one who that can read my mind.

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