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Uber applies for patent that would detect drunk passengers

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Uber wants to know how many of its users have had a night of imbibing.
Uber wants to know how many of its users have had a night of imbibing.

Image: Robert Essel NYC/Getty Images

I am a bar-hopping, 20-something Uber customer — and this patent application that the ride-sharing company just applied for sounds mortifying.

Uber has applied for a patent for a system that can “predict a user state.” That is, a new artificial intelligence product from Uber could figure out if you’re drunk, and just how far gone you are from your “normal state.” CNN first spotted the application.

The system would use a series of smartphone interaction measurements to figure out a passenger’s “user state.” The activity it would look at is: “data input accuracy, data input speed, interface interaction behavior, device angle, or walking speed.” It could also possibly take into account data about location, time of day, and other factors.

This system would certainly give drivers more information about the person they’re picking up. They could deny a ride to someone who’s wasted, or maybe if they’re nice, just offer them extra water? 

Or, perhaps it would trigger extra monitoring on Uber’s end, and could be a new way to deal with the sexual assault allegations against Uber’s drivers, who have taken advantage of inebriated passengers in the past. 

The hypothetical use cases listed in the patent mostly focus on safety, and if a driver is, um, “tired”:

Incidents, such as safety incidents and personal conflict incidents, can occasionally occur when users and/or providers behave uncharacteristically. Although rare, such safety incidents can negatively impact the transport experience for the user and/or the provider. For example, if a user is uncharacteristically tired when requesting a trip, the user might have difficulty locating the provider’s vehicle. Therefore, it is desirable to minimize impact of such safety incidents in travel coordination systems.

To Uber’s credit, drinking has increased dramatically in the U.S. over the last decade — 2015 saw a 17 percent increase in heavy drinking from 2005. Some experts account for that raise with the fact that women are drinking more heavily than in the past. 

Experts are still conflicted about whether Uber has contributed to fewer drunk driving incidents. But in the past, Uber has embraced its role in helping transport inebriated passengers home, if that means less drinking and driving.

But I have had conversations with Uber drivers who express discomfort with driving drunk passengers. Some of them have even told me they’re shocked at just how drunk their passengers get. A tool that provides some clarity, or accountability, could alleviate that worry.

As a passenger, all I want when I get in the back of an Uber is a safe way home and no judgement. I’m skeptical of something that monitors my “state” mostly because it sounds embarrassing, but also because it could be a potential way for Uber to avoid liability. 

Still, it’s important to remember that the product suggested by the patent may never come to fruition. Us Uber-dependents will just have to wait and see. 

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