June 8, 2017 10:00 am JST

UK company Roborace puts the AI in entertainment

Company dreams of human-free car racing and reality TV featuring software nerds

YUICHIRO KANEMATSU, Nikkei staff writer

Roborace's AI-controlled race car.

PALO ALTO, U.S. A vehicle that looked more like a winged torpedo on wheels than a car slowly snaked along a racecourse created on blocked-off roads in Paris in late May. Its low-slung body was painted an eye-catching mix of black, white and fluorescent yellow, and protruding from its rear was a periscope-like object equipped with a camera.

It could have been mistaken for a Formula One car at first glance, but it was too quiet to be packing a gasoline-powered engine. Something even more arresting set this electric vehicle apart: There was no driver's seat.

In this race, the drivers exist only as zeros and ones; artificial intelligence is calling the shots.

Welcome to the world of robot racing.

In these driverless racing events, the cars' specifications are exactly the same. What is different is the software used by the rival teams -- and that is where the real competition is. Though these races are currently being held on a trial basis, plans are underway to expand the sport soon.

Robot racing is already turning the heads of potential corporate supporters. One business that is already involved is U.S. tech company Nvidia, which provides cutting-edge chips used in self-driving cars. Nvidia has an alliance with Toyota Motor and is partly owned by an investment fund affiliated with Japan's SoftBank Group. The company sees robot racing as a way to raise its profile.

BIG PLAYERS PILE ON Other backers of the budding sport include such global brands as French tiremaker Michelin, German logistics company DHL and German insurer Allianz. Their interest makes sense given that they are in industries that are certain to be exposed to the disruptive effects of driverless vehicles.

With more companies supporting robot racing to sharpen their technologies and promote their brands, organizers of racing events have no trouble raising the necessary funds.

Daniel Simon, who designed the Robocar, said the vehicle is a billboard for AI. The vehicle is attractive from an entertainment perspective, he said, adding that it was fun to design a car with no driver's seat.

Simon is globally renowned for his work. He designed the futuristic vehicles used in the 2010 American sci-fi film "Tron: Legacy" and worked as a senior designer for French luxury automaker Bugatti Automobiles.

He said the parts that were custom made for the Robocar, including radar devices, will gradually be commoditized as the suppliers further hone the technologies developed for the races.

Roborace, the British company that developed the Robocar and which manages robot racing events, is continuously improving the technology to control the vehicles, CEO Denis Sverdlov said.

Sverdlov founded Russian telecommunications operator Yota and served as Russia's deputy communications and mass media minister.

The company is a curious mix of Russian telecom engineers and British marketing experts for auto racing. Beyond developing world-class technology, one of its chief aims is to create new forms of AI-based entertainment.

HUMAN DRAMA At the center of this strategy are software developers. Developing AI to control cars is extremely difficult, and setbacks are part of the process. Seeing an opportunity in the human drama involved in the work, Roborace will film engineers as they struggle to overcome the many obstacles that block the path to commercializing the cars. The company sees the potential for creating entertaining reality TV, and is looking into selling the broadcast rights. Roborace has already received sponsorship proposals from media companies, according to Sverdlov.

While much of the footage will contain low-key scenes of engineers working on computers, Sverdlov said, there will be drama, too. He envisions scenes showing frantic engineers racing against time to finish a task before a competition, or confrontations between stressed-out team members.

The popularity of such U.S. TV shows as "Silicon Valley," which focuses on the young founders of a tech startup, and "Mr. Robot," which centers on a cybersecurity engineer and hacker who suffers from depression, suggests people are interested in the individuals behind the technology that is increasingly driving our world. Programmers and software developers are becoming the new stars of our age, capable of feats once thought impossible.

Roborace, through its races and possible reality show, wants to capture the human drama that is behind all the technology.

Developing race cars is hugely expensive. But Sverdlov says the barriers to entry into the field will be lowered if the development focus shifts to software.

"It's not a competition over money, it's a competition over intelligence," Sverdlov said about robot racing.

Because Roborace does not belong to the International Automobile Federation -- the governing body for F1 racing -- it can set its own racing rules. Robot racing does not put human drivers' lives at risk, opening up possibilities for entirely new kinds of racing events. Think competitions where teams try to hack into their rivals' cars, or races across deserts or on ice.

Roborace also plans to create a racing category for students, with the aim of giving rise to novel technologies that will be adopted by carmakers, Sverdlov said. The company is currently in talks with schools interested in participating in robot racing.

Also on the drawing board are plans to pit AI against humans. Roborace is currently developing a car with a driver's seat so that a computer can "learn" from the driver's moves. Using this car, the company plans to conduct a race between an AI system and the best human driver available.

AI VS. AI But if history is any indication, such competitions will not be held for long. After Google's AlphaGo AI entertainment platform defeated the world's best go player 3-0 in a series of matches, the U.S. tech company "retired" the system. In auto racing, too, it is only a matter of time before computers make quick work of their human rivals.

That will set the stage for a new form of entertainment: AI vs. AI -- and the human drama behind it.

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