Smart Cars and the Cyber-Afterlife

Jon Markman

Two of the most important developments of our time will come from advancements in artificial intelligence and autonomous cars. We may look back at the mid-2010s much like we look back on the mid-1990s and the initial rise of the Internet.

In the mid-’90s, people had heard of the Internet if they were paying attention, but most of them didn’t have email or didn’t know about anything on the ’Net beyond AOL: America Online. It was a time before Amazon (AMZN), before Google (GOOGL), before Facebook (FB) before news aggregation websites, and well before current everyday essentials like streaming media players Spotify or Netflix (NFLX).

If you’re like most investors, you have probably tortured yourself with the idea that if only you had recognized what the web was going to become, you would have invested accordingly. I mean, Amazon is up 55,000% from its IPO in 1997.

Well, right now is the start of something, too. We’re just starting to see hints of how artificial intelligence – predictive analysis based on vast sets of data — will dramatically change our lives.

I talk about this all the time in my Tech Trend Trader letter. But one of the most fascinating, provocative and disturbing articles I have read on the subject was published last week on The Verge.

The article, “Speak, Memory,” provides a profound look at a Russian computer scientist and entrepreneur who lost her best friend in a Moscow traffic accident. As the subtitle explains: “When her best friend died, she rebuilt him using artificial intelligence.”

As a memorial to Roman Mazurenko, and as a way to keep his spirit alive, Eugenia Kudya came up with the idea to combine all the text messages she had received from him with all the text messages that their circle of friends could muster, and ran them through a neural net. Then she developed a way to interact with the output of the neural net.

The chatbot-type interface gives her and her friends a way to interact with their lost comrade after death in a way that feels very real. The neural net learned the quirky way the friend would respond to texts, so it does more than repeat his actual words back. The net responds in an unpredictable-but-authentic way, making it seem as if the dead friend was responding from beyond the grave.

Could all your text messages give you a shot at immortality on the Internet?

This is not science fiction, it’s real — and it provides a window into the idea that all of our routines, the essence of who we are as people, fathers, brothers, husbands and friends, can be digitized, processed and recreated.

Think about all the people that you primarily deal with digitally — i.e. all the people you only contact via email, text or social media, often for years without seeing them face-to-face. Is it not possible that an artificially intelligent representation of your humanity could stand in for you – and stand up to scrutiny? We are such creatures of habit, and respond to stimuli so predictably, that the artificial human is probably not a whole lot different than the actual human at a distance.

The possibilities are mind-blowing. No doubt this is one reason that Salesforce.com (CRM) wants to buy Twitter (TWTR). It wants to process all the live, quirky, insane, hopeful, slangy, respectful, hateful, ebullient, morose ways that millions of people communicate with each other. And it will then use it both to sell more widgets and to improve how machines can communicate with us without real human intervention.

More to the point of this story, consider that a whole new business could be created that is focused on digitizing a single person’s language, texts, emails and posts and preserving them for future generations to interact with. How cool would it be to chat with your dead great-grandfather in a way that his friends would recognize when he was alive?

Creepy, sure, but also amazing. This will very likely be possible for our grandkids, not to mention our grieving friends and children. The borderline between consciousness and artificiality will increasingly blur. Computer scientists call this “the singularity,” and it was supposed to arrive by around 2045. Now it seems like the date is moving up.   

As for how it’s playing out right now, one of the best places to look is the car industry. Our inanimate objects are becoming animate, to our benefit. Very soon, cars are going to start communicating. They will chat with traffic lights, pedestrians, massive data networks, and yes, other cars. It will be a joyful cacophony, a new web of assistance, safety and meaning.

I can’t point to any single Amazon-like small or new company in this space, yet. But the concept’s success depends upon extremely high-throughput computing. Leaders in that space now are chip-makers like Nvidia (NVDA) and Qualcomm (QCOM).

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Internal Sponsorship

Last month, BMW, Mercedes and Audi announced they would soon begin sharing data collected from the sensors in their cars. The companies jointly own HERE, a mapping software company purchased from Nokia earlier this year for $3.1 billion.  They plan to use that software as a hub for a massive Internet of Things platform that will store and organize data, then, share it with every other car connected to the network. Their cars will become smarter.  They will start communicating and learning from shared experiences.

Waze, a mobile application owned by Alphabet (GOOGL), is already doing some of this. It uses the bevy of sensors in smartphones and crowdsourcing to make sense of traffic conditions, police radar traps and even road closures.  The result is shorter and safer commutes in autos that are sometimes eerie in their prescient ability to avoid traffic jams.

Nicholas Goubert, head of platform product management for HERE, expects his platform will take convenience and safety to the next level.  That’s because it will incorporate the cameras and sophisticated sensors that have become commonplace in modern automobiles.  Front-facing cameras can see and read road signs for construction or lane closures. Windshield-wiper sensors can detect the intensity of inclement weather. Anti-lock brake sensors tell the tale of slower traffic.

Your car is alive, and just needs the spark of intelligence to communicate its knowledge.

“A local hazard warning will not only be sent to the driver, it will also be sent to the car’s assisted-driving system so that the car itself can start braking before the incident,” says Goubert.

And that is just the start.  In the future, data from connected cars with ultrasonic and LiDAR sensors will bring intricate, real-time 3D maps.  Vehicle-to-Everything (V2X) communication systems will remove line-of-sight limitations altogether.  This data will help ease the transition from assisted-driving systems to legitimate driverless cars.

The investment play is still taking shape, although leading contenders have emerged.  Researchers at McKinsey & Company expect the global market for vehicle connectivity components will reach $220 billion by 2020 and ultimately, connected cars will be best served by new 5G connectivity.  In the interim, Qualcomm announced a connected car reference platform in June to ease V2X integration in new cars using existing infrastructure.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is expected to begin making rules for V2X later this year. Meanwhile Microsoft seems to have most of the early momentum among the public cloud companies.  Its cloud now works with Volvo, Toyota and Nissan and seems to be signing new automakers at a brisk pace given its vast network of data centers.

The idea of cars connected by and communicating with a giant network might seem like science fiction.  A few years ago it was.  Now it’s coming.  It will bring convenience and safer cars.  It will also bring a huge new business opportunity most investors still can’t fathom.

Best wishes,

John Markman

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