Self-Driving Cars - Lessons from Total Recall
I saw this article on the potential social impact of self-driving cars at Ars Technica. There are lots of good ideas therein, and I recommend reading the whole article.
However, I would like to take a different tack, and examine the role of intelligent agents in these cars. The Ars Technica article doesn't mention anything about intelligent agents, most likely because it is an aspect of the technology not thought to have an effect on society. So I'll just consider it here in the interest of being a geek.
Matthew Yglesias posts this clip of Arnold in a robot cab in the movie Total Recall:
In the AT article, the author (Tim Lee) references handhelds, suggesting that driver-less taxis will be called in advance, with number of passengers and destination input in advance via some sort of google-maps-like interface. But what about the Total Recall approach of having a speech interface once you're inside the car? There are clear benefits here - you don't need to fiddle with a device simply to catch a ride down the street, you can speak to the car just as you speak to a driver currently. Of course, these types of interactions may decrease the efficiency of the taxi network that Lee envisions as a system to optimize through communication and planning. However, I can see this being just a continuation of the way that cabs work today -- if you call a cab from home, you need to specify a destination, and the dispatcher may tell you no ("We don't go to Duluth"). But if you are in the kind of neighborhood where you can just stand on the curb and hail a cab, you can probably just get in and tell them where to go without much trouble.
The second thing I wanted to mention was the dummy from the video. It's so low quality, it seems to be a net negative to the driverless-taxi experience. But the idea is worth examining. Does the representation of a human as a driver provide any benefit? I speculate that it does. Having a human-like or otherwise intelligent-looking thing to look at while speaking is a more natural way to converse. And it has one subtle technological benefit too - by giving a person a representation to look at while speaking, the AI also is able to get a fix on the speaker's face with visual sensors. This can be useful in many ways -- foremost being that speech recognition is more accurate when using visual information (lip-reading) as well as acoustic information. In addition, visual information can be used to extract emotional information from the user. The dummy in the video probably wishes it had this information, so it could hide inside the seat when Arnold became enraged at its incompetence. I think that the same benefits could be had much cheaper with a virtual human representation on a video screen, but I think either way the addition of a virtual intelligent presence would be useful.