May 30, 2017 2:00 pm JST

Artificial intelligence entering new stage as vehicle for entertainment

UK company Roborace unveils real self-driving race car, envisions exciting AI-AI competition

YUICHIRO KANEMATSU, Nikkei staff writer

Roborace's AI-controlled race car.

PALO ALTO, U.S. -- In Paris on May 20, a sleek, streamlined vehicle colored black, white and fluorescent yellow moved slowly around a race course on a blocked-off road. The futuristic vehicle looked like a winged torpedo and had a periscope-like camera-equipped object protruding from the rear of its body.

The vehicle looked similar to a Formula One racing car, except that it was electric, and had no driver's seat. Logos saying "Roborace" festooned its body.

The vehicle was operated not by a human driver but by artificial intelligence.

Teams participating in driverless robot racing events use the electric car, which can travel at speeds of up to 320kph. The races are determined by the capacity of the software as they compete using the same autonomously driven electric vehicles.

Full-scale robot racing is expected to begin within a few years. Trial races are now underway.

Robot racing has attracted attention from potential supporters. A typical supporter is Nvidia, a leading American technology company that provides the cutting-edge chips used in robotic cars. The manufacturer of graphics processing units, which has formed an alliance with Toyota Motor and is partly owned by an investment fund affiliated with SoftBank Group, is rapidly becoming a player in the field. As a backstage company pioneering driverless cars, Nvidia is expecting strong publicity effects from its support for robot racing.

Big players pile on

Global companies, such as French tire maker Michelin, German logistics firm DHL and German insurer Allianz, also support robot racing, as they are in industries that are certain to be exposed to the "disruptive" effects of driverless vehicles.

With more and more companies supporting robot racing in a bid to develop self-driving technologies and use the races in their advertising and branding efforts, organizers of racing events currently have no trouble raising the necessary funds.

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

Simon is a globally known designer who designed a futuristic vehicle for the 2010 American science fiction action film "Tron Legacy" and worked as a senior designer for French luxury automaker Bugatti Automobiles.

Special custom-made parts currently used in the robocar, such as five radars, will be gradually replaced by commodity parts so that participating companies can better utilize technologies they develop through robot racing for cars that they commercialize, Simon said.

Roborace, a British company that manages robot racing events, is continuously improving the technology to control the complicated machines during the races, CEO Denis Sverdlov said. The company also plans to sell an entertainment which is calls "human drama," he added.

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

Among other unique features of Roborace, the company is a combination of Russian telecom engineers and British experts on auto race marketing. It is seeking to create a new AI-based entertainment through the marketing team.

AI-AI competition

Software developers are at the center of the strategy. Problems regularly occur in the process of developing AI to control robocars, and Roborace will film engineers' struggles to settle the issues to commercialize the cars. The company is studying various options to realize this goal, including the sale of broadcast rights.

Roborace has received proposals for sponsorship from media companies, according to Sverdlov.

The campaign is expected to include many videos with low-key scenes of engineers working on computers. But there will be drama too, showing the engineers' devotion to their work as they race against time before a race, as well as conflict among the human teams, Sverdlov said. The controversy over the best way to maneuver the machines provides entirely human drama, he said.

The development of AI is accelerating in the content market as well.

In the U.S., "Silicon Valley," a TV program featuring the young founders of a start-up company in Silicon Valley, and another TV series, "Mr. Robot," focusing on a computer hacker who suffers from social dysfunction and mental illness, have become popular. Thanks to these and other TV series, software developers and computer programmers are increasingly regarded as superhuman, capable of creating new services that upset the existing order and readily breaching cybersecurity protection.

In fact, even people from impoverished backgrounds can vault social strata and become wealthy by applying their programming abilities. The ability to write computer code is an effective means of climbing the social ladder in modern society.

Programmers are the new stars in modern society, and Roborace plans to highlight the human drama in their lives.

"It's not a competition for budget, it is a competition for intelligence," Sverdlov said in reference to robot racing.

Huge amounts of money are required to develop racing cars at present. Barriers to  entry into the racing world will be lowered if the development of cars is replaced by that of software, Sverdlov said, adding that he wants to open the door to students.

New racing categories

As Roborace does not belong to the International Automobile Federation(FIA) -- the governing body for Formula One auto racing -- it can set racing rules on its own. As robot racing does not put human drivers' lives at risk, entirely new kinds of adventurous racing events will be possible. These will include competition involving cybersecurity technologies, such as blocking rival cars by hacking their systems, and races under extremely tough environments such as deserts or on ice.

Roborace plans to create a racing category for students. Robot racing will pave the way for novel technologies conceived by students, such as automakers' adoption of software developed by them, Sverdlov said.

The organization has already begun talks with universities willing to participate in robot racing.

There could also be competition between AI and humans. Human drivers will drive the cars at first so that the AI can "learn" the ins and outs of auto racing. To this end, Roborace is developing a car with a driver's seat. Using this car, it plans to conduct a race between an AI system and the best human driver available.

But such a race is likely to be short-lived, as in the case of Google's AlphaGo AI entertainment platform, which the company recently announced it will retire. The system hit the news when it defeated the world's best "go" player 3-0 in a series of matches. It is only a matter of time before humans succumb to AI under limited conditions such as auto racing.

"AI vs AI" will thus become a new framework for competition, and the human drama behind it will excite people. Rivalries involving AI and humans, which have already drawn attention in the fields of chess, shogi and go, are about to enter a new stage.

Toyota Motor Corp.

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