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With Thanksgiving safely behind us and the holiday season now in full swing, gift giving for kids now commands the attention of every mom, dad, grandparent, or any generous benefactor. Everyone wants to hear that shriek of joy or see the bright smile on the face of a child when they get a great gift that they truly wanted. As a little boy, the AF/X model race car sets or slot cars from Aurora was a special gift for me. Aurora advertised their slot car sets on television, featuring swooping racetracks and cars with real working headlights for dramatic, nighttime racing. The thought of slot car racing made my brothers and I talk and dream for hours about how having a set for ourselves. One year, our wish came true, and we received a race track and race cars that we used for years after, racing the little slot cars in hot competition not only among the brothers but friends and even parents. The small motorized cars ran off electricity that they picked up from metal rails embedded in the plastic track. The cars stayed on course with a little pin in the front of the car that stuck in the slot between the metal rails on the track with speed controlled by each driver with a thumb operated controller. The controller made the car go faster or slower by pushing the button down further to go quicker or letting it up to slow down. The challenge in slot car racing involved going as fast as possible without spinning out or flying off the track. Brothers wanted to win and sometimes emotions flared, but AF/X racing filled many winter evenings with fun and competition. In light of my fond memories of slot car racing in my youth, I wanted to check out the status of home slot car racing today.
Much like every other aspect of society, technology, and commerce, artificial intelligence has infiltrated slot car racing to produce much more technologically advanced slot car racing than the original ones with the metal rails and slots to power the vehicles and keep them on course. The new slot car sets no longer have a pin and slot to keep the cars on the course; instead, the cars use batteries for power and a smartphone or tablet to control the cars. One such slot car set called Overdrive made by Anki describes the cars as not as slot cars but as “a self-aware robot, driven by powerful artificial intelligence (A.I.) and equipped with deadly strategy.” (anki.com/en-us/overdrive) The Anki cars use sensors that relay information from the track and how the driver drives to artificial intelligence that keeps the car on the track and learns to become more competitive. Moreover, the cars can incorporate aspects of video gaming and virtual reality such as weapons including a chain and stun guns to temporarily disable opponents during a race or adding hazards such as a virtual oil slick to the track. Anki created a bridge with its Overdrive cars between the physical world of slot cars and video games.
The Holiday season inspires parents and grandparents to find that special gift for the children in their lives. As kids, my brothers and I dreamt of an AF/X slot car set that we could race at night in the dark. One year we received one, and it remains in my heart as one of the most fun and perennially used presents we ever got. The competition amongst us, as well as neighbor kids, provided hours of entertainment. Today the slot car has evolved from little cars powered by electricity from the track, guided by a pin in the car that stuck in track to battery powered, AI enabled robot cars that blend the physical world with the virtual world of video gaming. Anki Overdrive represents a new era in slot car racing incorporating advanced technology in the cars and track. It remains to be seen if the racing with the incorporation of artificial intelligence will engage the racers like the simpler tracks of before or if the AI takes too much of the control and makes the racing more of a spectator sport. More importantly, the holidays arrived recently and a slot car racing set for the right kids makes for a magical gift.
Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.
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