Uber’s new patent knows you’re drunk by how you hold your phone and that could have terrible consequences
I once managed to break a phone screen while drunk. I was texting, and walked into a lamp post. Embarrassingly, it wasn’t the immediate impact that broke it: I managed to drop the phone out of pure surprise that a lamp post had snuck up on me.
To a passerby, it would have been very easy to tell I was not to be picked up by a taxi, but a new patent application from Uber has sought to simplify this process considerably. An app can, according to Uber, spot changes in the way people use the app which could point to an “uncharacteristic user state.” The angle at which you hold the phone, your walking speed, uncommon typos, whether the phone is swaying: these all point to you not being your normal self, and if the app spots a combination it could adapt the way it works accordingly.
For the greater good?
To be clear, this is just a patent application and not all of these filings come to fruition – indeed Uber itself has a couple of patents that haven’t been seen in the wild yet. It’s certainly clever and useful information, but it’s fair that there is a good way to apply inebriation information in a very bad way.
Let’s start with the good: the patent suggests it could guide inebriated passengers to a brightly lit location for easier pickup and their own safety. It could match the drunk passenger to a driver trained to deal with difficult clients, and it could prevent the passenger from pooling with other users for their safety and comfort. All of these are pretty sensible and it’s hard to argue with any of them.
But, for a company with as many skeletons falling out of closets as Uber, it’s hard not to worry about the darker side of a patent such as this, which at its heart, highlights when a customer is particularly vulnerable. That vulnerability could simply lead to higher prices for customers too drunk to question the cost, but it becomes even more alarming when you consider the number of allegations of sexual assaults fielded against Uber drivers in recent years.
As I outlined above, this is a theoretical application for Uber at the moment, and there’s no evidence it is being used – let alone abused in the ways outlined above. Nor are we saying that Uber, or its drivers, would condone such actions. All the same, when I put these points to Uber, the company responded with the following statement:
“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.”