Toyota to launch cars that read your mind

Mind reading in action, subject dozed off (c) Bertel Schmitt

Elsewhere in the world, AI stands for artificial intelligence, and Elon Musk said that it will trigger World War III. In Japan, “Ai” stands for “love.” It was the first Japanese word I learned two hours after my arrival in Tokyo 12 years ago, and I promptly married the teacher. Taking a bow to the double meaning, Toyota today showed double-AI cars to a small group of reporters assembled at the company’s Tokyo HQ. We received a preview of mind-reading cars, driven by a lot of artificial intelligence, and a whole lotta love.

At the upcoming Tokyo Motor Show, Toyota will show concepts of two cars, and a three-wheeled mobility device. Unlike other cars that run on hydrocarbons or electricity, Toyota’s concepts are driven by the power of love. Dubbed “TOYOTA Concept-i series,” the vehicles are “based on the idea that cars are among the manufactured goods that are preceded by the word ‘beloved’,” we heard today. “The TOYOTA Concept-i series aims to become a ‘beloved car’ of a new era guided by the concept of ‘more than a machine, a partner’.” So far for the press release (full version here.) Now comes the eerie part:

As a good lover, Toyota’s future cars will be able to read our minds. Powered by technology supplied by SRI International, the Toyota Research Institute, and others, Toyota’s cars will come with an understanding of our emotions as standard equipment, available at around 2020. In a quite realistic-looking demo we saw today, the system interpreted facial expressions, speech patterns, and other inputs, such as the rate of breathing, measured with a diaphragm in the seat, all in an attempt to “better understand our customers,” as Project General Manager Makoto Okabe explained today.

Project General Manager Makoto Okabe (c) Bertel Schmitt

The quest for an in-depth understanding of the customer’s psyche is as old as the auto industry. 40 years ago, an executive at Volkswagen asked me to come up with a gizmo that would measure customer happiness on an individual basis. I had to reject the project. After all, this was the year the Apple II had come out, with a maximum memory of 64 kilobyte, the cellphone wasn’t yet commercially released, and the cloud was something that came out of the exhaust pipe.

These days, it’s easy. Twitter and Facebook are routinely scraped to read our sentiments, and a tweet like this could be written by bots. It probably was:

So I asked whether with this technology, Toyota could mind-read the customer’s satisfaction with the vehicle. Okabe-san’s answer showed that the thought had crossed their minds before. “This is most correct,” Okabe-san replied, and he explained that with this apparatus, Toyota no longer would have to rely on single readings of customer satisfaction, but could build a “complex picture.”

The measurement of customer satisfaction via questionnaires is a blunt instrument. Like all of our emotions, customer satisfaction has its constant ups and downs. Ask us a few months after we wanted to strangle our mechanic, and we are liable to give the aftersales experience five stars.

Other car companies would kill for the ability to measure and score satisfaction on a constant and individual customer basis. If I would own JD Power stock, I’d probably do some insider trading and sell today, for fear of the company being disrupted. Luckily, there is no JD Power stock.

Oh, and before you ask: All three vehicles will be battery-powered. Looks like Toyota has done a bit of mind-reading on its own.