Uber applies for patent to spot drunken passengers

The technology could spot changes in walking speed, user typos, and swaying motions

Popular taxi app Uber has applied for a patent to use artificial intelligence to determine how drunk a potential passenger may be.

According to the company’s application, made to the US patent office, the new technology would allow them to spot “uncharacteristic user activity” by monitoring customers’ activity as they use the Uber app. These variables could include: walking speed, unusual spelling errors made while typing on the app, the angle at which a potential passenger holds the phone and whether the phone is moving in an abnormal way.

Thought the patent application does not explicitly refer to identifying drunk or otherwise inebriated passengers – it uses terms such as ‘predicting user state using machine learning” and “uncharacteristic user states” – The Guardian points out that vetting intoxicated passengers is the most likely application for a system built to spot typos or unusual swaying motions.

The patent application suggests various ways that Uber may tailor their service if a user is seen to be exhibiting “uncharacteristic user activity”. For example, they may be directed to a well-lit pickup point, or they may be matched with a driver trained to deal with drunk passengers. Uber also suggest that intoxicated passengers may be prevented from “pooling” with other app users.

Many critics have suggested that Uber’s new proposed system may allow drivers to exploit intoxicated passengers. The company has seen several serious data breaches over the last few years, and in 2014 came under criticism for its use of the controversial ‘God View’ software program. The software allowed the company to monitor real-time locations of customers and drivers. In 2016, the company’s former forensic investigator Samuel Ward Spangenberg concluded that the software was abused by employees who used it to track ex-partners and celebrities.

A recent investigation by CNN also revealed that 103 Uber drivers have been accused of sexual assaulting or abuse in the US over the last four years.  Some have expressed concern that the patent may make certain passengers more vulnerable.

In a statement, Uber said: “We are always exploring ways that our technology can help improve the Uber experience for riders and drivers. We file patent applications on many ideas, but not all of them actually become products or features.”