Betting the Future on Artificial Intelligence – Technologue

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I spent a week in Vegas with Yui, Sam, Otto, Kuri, Aristotle, and Ara. No, it wasn’t a bachelor party. It was the Consumer Electronics Show.

Artificial intelligence made a huge splash at January’s CES techstravaganza with Amazon’s Siri-trumping Alexa standing tallest amid a crowd of animatronic assistants bearing the aforementioned cool, folksy names. By means of introduction, Yui is Toyota’s AI presence, then there’s SAM (Nissan/NASA), Otto (Samsung’s Siri/Alexa wannabe), Kuri (Bosch’s $700 ambulatory Alexa), Aristotle (Mattel’s $300 robo-nanny/tutor), and Ara (Kolibree’s brainy toothbrush).

Yui lives in Toyota’s Concept-I, a futuristic vehicle that (refreshingly) encourages driving. Its controls don’t even fold away! Toyota Research Institute CEO Gill Pratt freely admitted to the technorati gathered at CES that nobody is even close to providing full Level 5 autonomy, so Yui merely seeks to add comfort and safety to our driving experience. She’ll operate secondary controls for us while observing our facial expression and then use her machine learning to infer our emotional state. When a darkening mood is detected, she’ll try mood-elevating lighting, music, or even conversation to soothe us. Hopefully she’ll have an off button for times when computer conversation is the stress elevator.

Nissan’s SAM proposes to bring Mars Rover autonomy down to Earth. NASA’s rovers explore the red planet autonomously until they encounter an impediment, at which point they stop and phone home for human assistance. Similarly, SAM proposes to handle all the driving until indecipherable conditions (such as cops manually directing traffic around a crash) trigger him to pull over and solicit mission control assistance from a remote human. Of course the NASA budget to keep operators standing by to assist its two-rover fleet might not scale to servicing millions of Level 5 autonomous SAMs.

If the NASA connection conjures unpleasant recollections of named AI computers going rogue— think 2001: A Space Odyssey or the Terminator movies—perhaps you’ll derive greater comfort from one of the squillions of AI technologies introduced at CES without pet names.

One that jumped out was insurance giant Liberty Mutual, which operates a tech startup incubator in Boston called Solaria Labs. Based on customer research, Liberty Mutual has developed two applications that leverage AI and big data to provide new customer value: a crash-damage estimator app and enriched navigation based on a trove of accident data.

Say you’re in a hurry, rushing out of an unfamiliar parking space before your car’s backup camera has sprung to life, when BAM! Where’d that low pole come from, and how much is this going to cost to fix? You upload a photo of the damage and enter the car’s year, make, and model info, and cloud-based computers analyze your photo pixel by pixel.

The Liberty Mutual system endeavors to determine where the smoothly tooled original bodywork ends and the accident damage begins, how deep the damage is, and what parts might have been harmed beneath the crumpled surface. The system probes the insurer’s vast archive of crash damage photos to search for reasonable comps, compiling an average repair cost. The program can then apply correction factors based on the vehicle, considering things such as parts-cost premiums for low-production specialty vehicles or higher body-shop rates for carbon-fiber or aluminum-intensive structures. The best part: no waiting around for an adjuster.

Then there’s the idea of hacking your commute. Safe routing delves into Liberty Mutual’s vast archive of time-stamped geographic crash data, which can identify the riskiest intersections and stretches of roadway along a particular route while noting the most dangerous hours of the day for each. Drivers can use this information in different ways. Trips can be scheduled or routed to avoid the worst roads and intersections entirely. Or a typical shortest/quickest route can be plotted with the system in order to warn the driver of the heightened risk areas, enhance vigilance, and reduce risk in those areas.

How will Liberty Mutual monetize these products? “We’re still figuring out what a go-to-market strategy would look like,” says Ted Kwartler, Liberty Mutual assistant VP of innovation. “We definitely will have a free tier because our focus here is on safety—on helping people understand risk and helping people have less worry.”

Sounds good. Just please refrain from naming your AI unit Libby and making me talk to it.

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