Carry a ‘Big Blue’ passenger

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Big Blue isn’t Cookie Monster or even a Smurf. I’m referring to IBM and its Artificial Passenger – a voice-based, interactive system that can, on command, operate vehicle accessories, provide directions, news, entertainment or Internet access, detect drowsiness and intercede, and warn of vehicle, road or weather hazards.

The Artificial Passenger is part of a broader initiative Big Blue and others call telematics, which the company defines as the convergence of telecommunications and ‘informatics.’ While the concept is already spawning words you won’t find in Webster’s, you can think of it as an array of services offered to drivers through vehicle-integrated devices linked wirelessly to the Internet or a dedicated service center.

For fleets, application of telematics include remote, wireless diagnostics and predictive maintenance flagging. For vehicle builders and suppliers, it can help improve design by providing information on how vehicles are performing in the field.

And telematics can even enable a new form of vehicle insurance, which calculates premiums based on actual miles driven and can virtually eliminate insurance fraud. The concept is already being tried in the U.K.

But back to our Artificial Passenger, or ArtPas, as IBM calls it, which was recently demonstrated at the company’s research and development center in Hawthorne, N.Y. The goal was to feature a conversational interface, simulating interactions between a driver and passenger. IBM describes it as “an autonomous entity that engages the driver in hands-free interactivity, using games or entertainment when conditions, like drowsiness, are detected.”

According to Mahesh Viswanathan, research staff member, Mobile Speech Solutions, making conversation natural and easy was an important part of making ArtPas do its job, while minimizing driver distraction. For that reason, it was designed with scaleable interaction, depending on the urgency of a given situation, and user-selectable dialog richness. ArtPas also had to be capable of partial speech recognition, prompting the driver if a command is not understood, and switching seamlessly between local and network communication and tasks.

The end result is that, without speech training, ArtPas can respond to commands like “Set the temperature to 72 degrees,” which requires local action. Or, it can answer casual questions like “How’s the market doing?” which requires network interaction.

ArtPas uses sensors to help it decide what features should be available at any given time, in order to reduce distraction when safety could be at risk. Responding to an e-mail while negotiating a snow-covered curve, for example, is a situation to be avoided.

ArtPas also prioritizes dialog, based on perceived vehicle problems or road hazards. So, while you’re in the middle of asking where the nearest Mexican restaurant is, the system could interrupt to inform you that one of your tires is deflating.

One of the obstacles to successful voice interaction in vehicles is speech recognition, especially under noisy conditions. IBM is addressing the problem with its audiovisual speech recognition (AVSR) project, which will use cameras focused on drivers’ mouths, along with software that can be trained to read lips, while taking into account driver pose variation and non-uniform lighting conditions. The company claims AVSR has already demonstrated large performance gains in speech-recognition accuracy, versus audio input alone.

And, as an added benefit, AVSR’s cameras can serve as one means to combat drowsiness by watching for closed eyes, and getting ArtPas to help the driver with appropriate dialog.

As telematics become more common, says IBM, ArtPas will be able to interface with a resource manager, which will enable retrieval of live data from sources such as traffic-reporting centers, other vehicles and road sensors. It could, for example, facilitate real-time applications like shortest-time routing, based on live road conditions.

IBM has been pitching ArtPas to OEs, and the system reportedly will be available on an undisclosed auto maker’s model in 2004. Trucks, I’m guessing, can’t be too far behind.

If ArtPas sounds a little too much like Hal from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” relax. This is a good thing. Besides, you can always turn it off without it turning on you.