"Hey Mercedes, drive me to work" - With artificial intelligence (AI), we will interact with our car intuitively in the future. Even small talk will be possible then," says Dr Teresa Botschen. Together with her colleagues in the AI Research Team at Mercedes-Benz, the PhD computer scientist and AI expert is working on making vehicles smarter - for even more comfort and the perfect driving experience. In her interview, she tells us how she bridges the gap between research and the vehicle, and how her team can implement ideas together.
Dr. Botschen, will vehicles soon be as smart as humans?
That depends on your definition of "smart" (laughs). Vehicles will certainly be able to react much more flexibly to different situations in the future. Machine learning makes this possible. The most prominent example of this is currently the development of automated vehicles. However, artificial intelligence offers many more fields of application. At Daimler we use technology in a wide variety of areas. One field that I find particularly exciting is driver-vehicle communication, for example the question: How will we communicate and interact with our vehicles in the future? The potential here is huge.
In the AI Research Team you are the expert for Natural Language Processing. What exactly is this about?
Put simply, I teach our cars to understand human language better. A major challenge for machines is the ambiguity of our language. This often leads to misunderstandings in communication between people. A simple example: In the distant future, when you tell your self-driving vehicle to "park at the bank", it could be taken to mean park on the river bank or near the bank branch around the corner. It depends on the context. In our team, we are developing methods to enable vehicles to make situational decisions, for example by using additional cameras and combining voice and image processing in a multimodal way.
This means that in the future we will be able to have a proper conversation with our vehicle?
Almost (laughs). Imagine you are on your way to work in the morning and have your car read out the latest news to you, you comment on the news and the car searches for corresponding further information pertaining to your comment. This can already come very close to a real conversation, though we place great emphasis on the transparent and responsible use of AI. Our goal is not to pretend that the driver is interacting with a human being, but to support the driver in the car in the best possible way. But human-vehicle interaction will certainly become much more intuitive, and at the same time the vehicles will become more proactive.
What do you mean by that?
If you give your automated vehicle the order "Drive me to Stuttgart", the system could recognise who is currently on board and make individual suggestions for the route. For example, you get into the car early in the morning, carrying your laptop bag. The algorithm deduces that you are on your way to work and offers you a stop at your favourite bakery. And if you get in with your family in the afternoon, perhaps a stopover at a nice area with a playground.
One field that I find particularly exciting is driver-vehicle communication, for example how will we communicate with our vehicles in the future? There is huge potential for AI here.
And in the AI Research Team, you develop solutions to implement such technologies at Daimler?
Yes, but language processing and driver-vehicle communication are only part of our projects. With our team, we support specialist departments across the whole Group in using various machine learning technologies for their processes - whether as a development tool or in the vehicle, for example for a Digital Luxury Experience, which are applications that ensure the perfect driving experience in our vehicles. Every project is different. There is no such thing as "one size fits all". That's what makes my work so exciting.
How would you describe your team?
Quite multifaceted and interdisciplinary. We are colleagues from very different disciplines - from physics and mathematics to electrical engineering and computer science. This is also important when we work on new, innovative topics. Depending on the expertise required for a project, we assemble a project group with two or three colleagues. Of course, we always work very closely with the development departments, but also with Legal. And for projects involving language and text processing, I have established a Group-wide NLP (Natural Language Processing) community together with a core team.
What makes the AI Research Team special, in your opinion?
We are a motivated and creative group. The interdisciplinary exchange is super-exciting, and often brings completely new perspectives. And we have a great team spirit, not only in the AI Research Team but in the whole department. We often also offer subjects for academic theses or projects for students in our team. The exchange with universities and start-ups is very important for me personally.
Because you come from a research background?
Yes, before I started in the AI Research Team, I was a doctoral student at the Technical University of Darmstadt, where I did my doctorate in the research field of Natural Language Processing and developed systems for automatic text analysis and multimodal speech understanding. During this time, I attended an international conference where my later colleagues from Daimler also presented new research results, and we got talking. I was impressed by the depth of Daimler's research into artificial intelligence. .
What makes Daimler a good employer for you?
What I personally find great is that here I have the opportunity to implement the results from research in specific applications. Daimler is investing a great deal in the future. We have a large innovation workshop where we can build prototypes and simply try out new ideas. After all, research means that sometimes the things that emerge can't immediately be mass-produced. Here we have the freedom to accelerate research into AI.
Finally, we would like to know: What is the must-have in your dream office?
A place for my shepherd dog. She keeps me company in the home office right now, and every video conference with colleagues becomes much more relaxed when she moves into the picture every now and then, to see whom I am talking to (laughs).
Dr Teresa Botschen (30) brings the latest AI technologies from science into the car at Daimler. Together with her interdisciplinary team, she is driving AI research forward in the Group. The natural language processing expert started her journey with artificial intelligence in the Cognitive Science programme at the University of Tübingen. She completed her Master's degree in Computational Statistics and Machine Learning at University College London, followed by a doctorate in Natural Language Processing at the Technical University of Darmstadt. Besides her research at Daimler, she enjoys discovering the world on city trips and mountain tours, singing musical songs in a choir or having fun training her dog.