It’s impossible to say exactly how much money Uber makes from drunk people, but if the number of bleary-eyed people wandering around on Friday and Saturday nights trying to find their summoned cars is anything to go by, it’s probably quite a lot. The company clearly knows its audience: this week, it applied for a patent for an AI that could spot drunk or high passengers simply by the way they walked, typed or held their phone.
According to the patent, the AI could measure a user’s walking speed, watch for unusual typos or sense whether a phone is swaying or being held at an unusual angle. This, it suggests, could “predict user state using machine learning” and recognise “uncharacteristic user states”. In short, knowing whether you’re pissed or not.
The company almost certainly believes that this information would be used for good, and it’s undeniable that the option to avoid intoxicated passengers would come as a blessed relief to many drivers. For passengers, however, the AI might not be such good news, and allowing drivers to identify vulnerable, drunk and potentially lone passengers could in fact be incredibly dangerous.
For a company with such a poor track record when it comes to sexual assault, the prospect is worrying. A recent CNN investigation found that 103 Uber drivers in the US alone had been accused of “sexually assaulting or abusing” their passengers in the past four years. Thirty-one had been convicted for crimes ranging from “forcible touching and false imprisonment to rape”; further civil and criminal cases were also pending. In a recent statement, an Uber spokesperson said safety was the company’s top priority this year and cited recent protocol updates such as rerunning driver background checks on an annual basis. Reports have also revealed the company’s decision to require women to settle cases of assault and rape by drivers through arbitration rather than in public courts – protecting company interests and potentially silencing victims.
The figures speak volumes when it comes to Uber’s approach to sexual assault, and don’t provide much hope that its new technology would come with the kind of protections it would desperately need – especially when you consider the number of vulnerable (sometimes drunk) young women who rely on Uber to safely get them home.
This isn’t the only limitation to the technology, either. As the patent explains, sensors could be triggered when a phone shakes or sways, when typing is slow, or when it’s held at a particular angle. But by what metric is this being assessed? As many people with disabilities pointed out on Twitter, someone with cerebral palsy or Alzheimer’s is unlikely to type or hold a phone in the same way as the majority of users, and thus may trigger the AI’s intoxication sensor.
People with disabilities are far less likely to be able to access Uber’s service already: in fact, the company has already been sued several times for discriminating against disabled passengers. In 2017, several lawsuits were filed in Washington DC, Mississippi and New York by groups angry at the company’s failure to provide them with adequate service. And in 2018, a group of activists mounted a lawsuit against the company for failing to provide enough wheelchair-accessible vehicles. The group described Uber’s “continued resistance to following the laws that keep transportation services open to everyone”, citing California’s anti-discrimination laws to argue that wheelchair users simply cannot rely on the company for transportation. For its part, Uber says it does a lot to support disabled passengers. Besides UberWAV, which includes vehicles with ramps or hydraulic lifts for wheelchairs, it also offers UberAssist that lets passengers request a driver trained to accommodate disabled people.
With all of this in mind, it’s not hugely surprising that Uber might have once again designed a piece of technology that sees non-disabled passengers as default and disabled ones as an afterthought.
It’s hardly as if we can trust Uber with our personal data, either. In 2014, the company came under fire for the use of a so-called “God’s View” technology – a tool that allowed employees to track the journeys of individual users. Josh Mohrer, general manager of Uber in New York, was forced to apologise after he used the technology to track a Buzzfeed reporter who had interviewed him, with the company hastily scrambling to clarify that his access to the data was against the rules. But who can be sure that such rules could – or would – not be broken again?
An Uber spokesperson has noted that the AI is merely a work in progress, and points out that many patents never even get made. For our sake – and for the sake of Uber’s incredibly overworked PR team – let’s hope that this one doesn’t get off the drawing board.
- Emily Reynolds is a freelance journalist