Talking Ai with London Cab Drivers

AI Insights

Being a daytime Londoner one of my favourite pastimes is to take an occasional ride in a proper London black cab and have a natter along the way. This is often a pretty cathartic experience - probably more so for the driver than the passenger, but I find it entertaining being the listening post, and London cab drivers are a good measure of the mood of the city.

Not to paint all of them with the same brush, but generally most conversations will revolve around the following - road works in London, how cyclists are the devils of society, bus lanes, other drivers, tourists, tourists who’ve taken the outrageous step to hire a car and have the temerity to drive in London, the ineptitude of whoever is currently London Mayor, how annoying the last person was to get out of the cab, London football banter and a final comment about road works making this job harder by the day.

However as a refreshing change I’ve recently had a couple of great conversations around Ai, how Ai is transforming everything we do and whether it is a help or a hindrance. It’s a massive subject and one I’m especially intrigued about as Verne Global is at the bleeding-edge of this Ai evolution, providing the computing hardware for an increasing number of innovative Ai start-ups and machine learning ventures.

Earlier this month I was picked up outside the British Museum by Mike from Bethnal Green. He was a proper East End cockney with a West Ham United scarf swinging from his rear view mirror. We got on like a house on fire.

“Don’t get me started on that Ai stuff” he opened up with. (Whenever a London cabbie says ‘Don’t get me started on that’, you know they're warming up the vocal chords and hand gestures to do just that, and it was no different in this case).

“What do I advise my ten year old at school to go and learn and do as a trade?” he pointed out. “He’s a bright lad, but what job could he do in 20 years that a robot won’t be doing faster and cheaper?” It was bleak stuff but I found it hard to argue against those fears as I’ve had similar thoughts regarding my own children's’ futures. Mike added - “the whole Ai thing just frightens me – we’ll end up with those machines managing us. That Stephen Hawking knew a thing or two and he said AI could replace us. We need to stay ahead of the robots”.

I decided now wasn't probably the best time to ask Mike what he thought about 'Uber' and so we were left trying to work out the best Ai-proof career. As I got out at Euston Road we both came to the conclusion the answer is plumbing. We couldn’t imagine many Ai robots getting their robotic arms around the back of the kitchen drainer or enjoying re-grouting a shower unit so there was some positive light at the end of the S-bend…

A week later, Gustavo, originally from Uruguay and a London cab driver for the last 16 years, picked me up from Kings Cross on a day when the Northern Line was reaching 42 degrees celsius and the last thing any sane human wanted to do was go underground. We soon got talking and Gustavo was effervescent in his praise of Ai and the fantastic developments he feels it already brings him, and will bring society in the future.

“Music is my life” he enthusiastically pointed out. Gustavo spends eight hours a day listening to Spotify in his cab and as a result of their Ai powered ‘Discover Weekly’ feature he has broadened his listening to hundreds of new artists and groups. “Yesterday I spent an hour in Columbia, had my lunch break on the Serengeti with the Masia Mara, and drove home in the middle of a live rock concert from Tokyo. In this way Ai has given me more of what I love”.

And as we weaved through the traffic up Pentonville Road (Gustavo tapping the steering wheel to some Panamanian garage band) he explained Ai is helping him throughout the day in other ways – the application Waze guides him across London providing him with those clever shortcuts so essential for a London cabbie and with a brand new hybrid car fitted with more Ai gadgetry than your average Bond car he has sensors that help him and his passengers stay safe, relaxed and entertained.

He’s also constantly updated via his smart phone as to the security of his house, his heart rate – with his phone monitoring him 24/7, and the trading patterns for his investments which he monitors on the go. “I’m fitter, healthier, happier and richer thanks to Ai' he laughed.

It wasn’t just the perceived ‘little stuff’ either. His summary on Ai as I stepped out at Moorgate was that ‘Ai is helping me reduce my carbon footprint because it’s always managing my car’s engine emissions. In the future Ai will be what will save our planet from humans, and make it green again.”

Gulp… Heavy stuff indeed.

I enjoyed both my conversations with Mike and Gustavo and look forward to the next opinion I hear when I take my next cab ride. I'm hoping for more Ai and less road works.

When you consider the massive data sets behind Ai, and the complex algorithmic computations that support it, it’s somewhat of an irony to remember that to become a proper London black cabbie, a driver is expected to know more than 320 routes through 25,000 roads that run past 20,000 landmarks via a test called ‘The Knowledge’ and this takes around 34 months of preparation and deep memory training. Wow! No mean feat training your brain and neural network to do that. Never mind the late, great Stephen Hawking - perhaps Ai could learn a thing or two from Mike and Gustavo....

Note: We're organising an Ai Field Trip up to Iceland for 23-25 October. If you're working within the field of Ai and machine learning and you're interested in learning how Verne Global and our Iceland location are perfect for this type of intensive compute, give me a shout - [email protected]

Written by Adam Nethersole

See Adam Nethersole's blog

Adam is Senior Director of Marketing at Verne Global and has worked within the areas of sustainability tech and renewable energy for the last 20 years. You can follow him at: @AdamNethersole

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