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Meet the new car dashboard diva

New Scientist

SPLASH! You dropped off at the wheel for a split second, but a blast of cold water in your face woke you up. The source? Not a broken windscreen washer, but clever software called an "artificial passenger".

Developed by IBM, the artificial passenger, or AP, is designed to make long solo journeys safer and more bearable by getting to know you, chatting to you, choosing your music, telling you jokes-and sounding alarms when you foul up.

If you reckon there's no need for such a thing, think again. Andrew Parks of the Driving Simulation Centre at Britain's Transport Research Laboratory in Crowthorne, Berkshire, says up to 30 per cent of road traffic accidents are thought to be caused by drowsy drivers. Researchers are striving to cut this figure by developing in-car systems that detect tiredness before it's too late, such as one that uses cameras to monitor your eye movements for signs of sleepiness (New Scientist, 24 March, p 24).

But IBM's is a more thorough approach. Wlodek Wlodzimierz and Dimitri Kanevsky of IBM's T. J. Watson research lab in Yorktown Heights, New York, hope their AP will keep you alert at the wheel by chatting to you-and analysing your responses.

The AP is not just some inflatable auto-maton that sits in the passenger seat. It's an intelligent presence packed into the dashboard electronics. The heart of the system is a conversation planner that holds a profile of you, including details of your interests and profession. When activated, the AP uses the profile to cook up provocative questions such as, "Who was the first person you dated?" via a speech generator and the in-car speakers.

Your answer is picked up by a microphone and broken down into separate words by speech-recognition software. A camera built into the dashboard also tracks your lip movements to improve the accuracy of the speech recognition. A voice analyser then looks for signs of tiredness by checking to see if the answer matches your profile. Slow responses and a lack of intonation are read as signs of fatigue.

If you reply quickly and clearly, the system judges you to be alert and tells the conversation planner to continue the line of questioning. If your response is slow or doesn't make sense, the voice analyser assumes you are dropping off and wakes you up by opening a window, sounding a buzzer -or spraying you with icy water.

Another ploy the AP may try is to surprise the driver by switching radio stations-or even telling a joke. IBM may need to brush up its humour, however. The sample jokes in its AP patent are pretty bad: "The stock market just fell 500 points! Oh, I am sorry, I was joking."

But don't despair. If a joke fails to raise a laugh, other drivers may be spared it. "Our system could be connected to many drivers via the Internet," says Kanevsky. "If the driver doesn't laugh, the system will not repeat the joke to others."

"There's a real use in developing these types of systems," says Parks. "Accidents from falling asleep tend to be serious." But Parks says that opening a window or spraying water might not be enough to help. "These have only a transient effect," he says. "It's best if people can pull over, have a quick coffee, then get their head down in the half-hour before the caffeine kicks in."

Wlodzimierz says IBM is in talks with various car makers to discuss adopting their system (US patent 6236968). "If this is something people want, it's doable within three to five years," he says. As long as they come up with some decent one-liners, that is.

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Author: Ian Sample

New Scientist issue: 21st July 2001

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