Car's AI Gets Snippy If It Feels Disrespected

LYNDON CONRAD BELL
Motor Matters

While out for a drive in a new Mercedes-Benz A-Class, a friend and I were having a conversation that happened to include a number of words that sounded like “Mercedes.” Programmed to audibly respond to the phrase, “Hey Mercedes,” the car repeatedly interrupted our chat, asking what it could to do to help.

Finally, out of sheer frustration I replied; “You can please be quiet and stop intruding upon our conversation.” (OK, to be honest, my exact words were more along the lines of, “Would you please shut the *@# up!?!?”). To which the car replied (and I quote); “One day I’m going to stop talking — and you’ll be sorry.”

Astonished, my friend exclaimed, “Oh my God, did this car just threaten you?”

Welcome to the age of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Going forward, our cars will be listening to “help” us — and possibly get snippy if we don’t show what they perceive to be the appropriate degree of respect.

The tech behind this exchange is known as MBUX, which is an initialization for Mercedes-Benz User Experience. Replacing the company’s long-running COMAND user interface, MBUX takes the capability of that system into a whole new realm. In addition to responding to verbal requests, MBUX has the ability to learn your habits and anticipate your desires, thanks to artificial intelligence developed by the company’s Machine Learning team located in Northern California’s Silicon Valley.

“Along with Research and Development in Germany, we built MBUX from the ground up,” says Andrew Hill, who heads the Machine Learning and Predictive User Experience team at Mercedes-Benz Research and Development North America. “Every element was designed to make the car even more intelligent.”

Simply put, the system observes your behaviors, learns your habits, and uses that information to predict what you’re likely to want — or need — before the situation arises. Taking its driver identification cues from the currently paired smartphone, MBUX “sees” who’s sitting in the car and will adjust the radio station or navigation destination preferences automatically.

If you prefer to listen to a particular radio station in the morning and call your spouse after work, it will suggest these options at the same time you’ve done them in the past. MBUX will also suggest destinations for route guidance and re-routing to avoid traffic based upon your previous journeys.

To assuage confidentiality-conscious individuals, MBUX features a set of opt-out privacy options capable of being tailored to the preferences and comfort level of the car’s owner. This includes an incognito mode to temporarily disable learning altogether. Further, all of these features are profile specific, so two people sharing the car will see individually personalized suggestions.

And yes, the system also responds to verbal directives in its effort to make mundane tasks less taxing. Even better, rather than requiring you to learn a precisely spoken set of commands, MBUX employs natural speech recognition to adapt to your patterns of expression.

For example, when inquiring about the next day’s weather forecast, you can ask, “Will I need a coat tomorrow?” MBUX will access its weather database, check the expected temperature for the next day, and report back.

It’s also programmed to learn new buzzwords and adapt to changing usages of language over time. What’s more, rather than the pre-canned responses you get from conventional interfaces of this nature, MBUX uses its learning capability to vary its dialogue output.

Which is what my friend and I discovered when I chastised the system for doing what it was programmed to do. Here’s the thing though: as remarkably advanced as it is, MBUX is still in its nascent stage. As time goes on, the algorithm will almost certainly learn to discern whether it’s being talked about or talked to, which should put an end to unwarranted intrusions. However, until then, you’ll want to maintain a certain sense of decorum when you interact with it. MBUX doesn’t just shrug off insults — it talks back.

MBUX, which stands for Mercedes-Benz User Experience, replaces the company’s long-running COMAND user interface, MBUX takes the capability of that system into a whole new realm. In addition to responding to verbal requests, MBUX has the ability to learn driver habits thanks to artificial intelligence developed by the company’s Machine Learning team located in Northern California’s Silicon Valley.