MIT envisions future of talking cars that can plan driver's day

Researchers are building systems to enable humans to collaborate with robots and vehicles

You wake up in the morning and your robot starts the coffee maker and then sends the daily calendar to the car. The car then works on a plan that makes sure you keep to that schedule.

It's not a scene out of a sci-fi movie. It's the vision of MIT researchers who are developing systems to help people collaborate with robots and vehicles.

"In general, everything around us is getting smarter," said Brian Williams, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. "We're trying to allow people to interact with these increasingly autonomous systems in the same way that they would interact with another human."

Williams and MIT graduate student Peng Yu are working on an algorithm that is similar to those that would run autonomous vehicles, like Google's driverless car. The MIT effort first aims to enable conventional vehicles and robots to work with humans to plan routes and schedules.

The researchers were inspired by users of the Zipcar car sharing service who want to do everything on their schedules during the time they have a car reserved.

The system will use speech recognition technology to let the driver tell it of its daily schedule. The system will then use digital maps to create a plan to allow the user to finish the schedule in the time period specified.

The system will suggest canceling tasks that could keep the user off schedule.

"Our technology views the process of collaboration as a diagnostic problem," Williams said in a statement. "The algorithm figures out why the travel plan failed, what were the important things that caused it to fail, and explains this back to the user."

If the user doesn't like the system's suggestion, he or she can prod it to come up with another solution.

"There is a back-and-forth dialogue until the algorithm finds something that meets the customer's needs and that the car knows it can actually do," Williams noted.

The researchers also are investigating to see if the algorithm can work with plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

Some people are hesitant to user the cars because of what's been dubbed "range anxiety" -- the fear of running out of charge away from home or a charging point.

By using MIT's system, drivers could work with the car to plan their schedule and their route.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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