Tag Archives: sci-fi

#431899 Darker Still: Black Mirror’s New ...

The key difference between science fiction and fantasy is that science fiction is entirely possible because of its grounding in scientific facts, while fantasy is not. This is where Black Mirror is both an entertaining and terrifying work of science fiction. Created by Charlie Brooker, the anthological series tells cautionary tales of emerging technology that could one day be an integral part of our everyday lives.
While watching the often alarming episodes, one can’t help but recognize the eerie similarities to some of the tech tools that are already abundant in our lives today. In fact, many previous Black Mirror predictions are already becoming reality.
The latest season of Black Mirror was arguably darker than ever. This time, Brooker seemed to focus on the ethical implications of one particular area: neurotechnology.
Emerging Neurotechnology
Warning: The remainder of this article may contain spoilers from Season 4 of Black Mirror.
Most of the storylines from season four revolve around neurotechnology and brain-machine interfaces. They are based in a world where people have the power to upload their consciousness onto machines, have fully immersive experiences in virtual reality, merge their minds with other minds, record others’ memories, and even track what others are thinking, feeling, and doing.
How can all this ever be possible? Well, these capabilities are already being developed by pioneers and researchers globally. Early last year, Elon Musk unveiled Neuralink, a company whose goal is to merge the human mind with AI through a neural lace. We’ve already connected two brains via the internet, allowing one brain to communicate with another. Various research teams have been able to develop mechanisms for “reading minds” or reconstructing memories of individuals via devices. The list goes on.
With many of the technologies we see in Black Mirror it’s not a question of if, but when. Futurist Ray Kurzweil has predicted that by the 2030s we will be able to upload our consciousness onto the cloud via nanobots that will “provide full-immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system, provide direct brain-to-brain communication over the internet, and otherwise greatly expand human intelligence.” While other experts continue to challenge Kurzweil on the exact year we’ll accomplish this feat, with the current exponential growth of our technological capabilities, we’re on track to get there eventually.
Ethical Questions
As always, technology is only half the conversation. Equally fascinating are the many ethical and moral questions this topic raises.
For instance, with the increasing convergence of artificial intelligence and virtual reality, we have to ask ourselves if our morality from the physical world transfers equally into the virtual world. The first episode of season four, USS Calister, tells the story of a VR pioneer, Robert Daley, who creates breakthrough AI and VR to satisfy his personal frustrations and sexual urges. He uses the DNA of his coworkers (and their children) to re-create them digitally in his virtual world, to which he escapes to torture them, while they continue to be indifferent in the “real” world.
Audiences are left asking themselves: should what happens in the digital world be considered any less “real” than the physical world? How do we know if the individuals in the virtual world (who are ultimately based on algorithms) have true feelings or sentiments? Have they been developed to exhibit characteristics associated with suffering, or can they really feel suffering? Fascinatingly, these questions point to the hard problem of consciousness—the question of if, why, and how a given physical process generates the specific experience it does—which remains a major mystery in neuroscience.
Towards the end of USS Calister, the hostages of Daley’s virtual world attempt to escape through suicide, by committing an act that will delete the code that allows them to exist. This raises yet another mind-boggling ethical question: if we “delete” code that signifies a digital being, should that be considered murder (or suicide, in this case)? Why shouldn’t it? When we murder someone we are, in essence, taking away their capacity to live and to be, without their consent. By unplugging a self-aware AI, wouldn’t we be violating its basic right to live in the same why? Does AI, as code, even have rights?
Brain implants can also have a radical impact on our self-identity and how we define the word “I”. In the episode Black Museum, instead of witnessing just one horror, we get a series of scares in little segments. One of those segments tells the story of a father who attempts to reincarnate the mother of his child by uploading her consciousness into his mind and allowing her to live in his head (essentially giving him multiple personality disorder). In this way, she can experience special moments with their son.
With “no privacy for him, and no agency for her” the good intention slowly goes very wrong. This story raises a critical question: should we be allowed to upload consciousness into limited bodies? Even more, if we are to upload our minds into “the cloud,” at what point do we lose our individuality to become one collective being?
These questions can form the basis of hours of debate, but we’re just getting started. There are no right or wrong answers with many of these moral dilemmas, but we need to start having such discussions.
The Downside of Dystopian Sci-Fi
Like last season’s San Junipero, one episode of the series, Hang the DJ, had an uplifting ending. Yet the overwhelming majority of the stories in Black Mirror continue to focus on the darkest side of human nature, feeding into the pre-existing paranoia of the general public. There is certainly some value in this; it’s important to be aware of the dangers of technology. After all, what better way to explore these dangers before they occur than through speculative fiction?
A big takeaway from every tale told in the series is that the greatest threat to humanity does not come from technology, but from ourselves. Technology itself is not inherently good or evil; it all comes down to how we choose to use it as a society. So for those of you who are techno-paranoid, beware, for it’s not the technology you should fear, but the humans who get their hands on it.
While we can paint negative visions for the future, though, it is also important to paint positive ones. The kind of visions we set for ourselves have the power to inspire and motivate generations. Many people are inherently pessimistic when thinking about the future, and that pessimism in turn can shape their contributions to humanity.
While utopia may not exist, the future of our species could and should be one of solving global challenges, abundance, prosperity, liberation, and cosmic transcendence. Now that would be a thrilling episode to watch.
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#431603 What We Can Learn From the Second Life ...

For every new piece of technology that gets developed, you can usually find people saying it will never be useful. The president of the Michigan Savings Bank in 1903, for example, said, “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty—a fad.” It’s equally easy to find people raving about whichever new technology is at the peak of the Gartner Hype Cycle, which tracks the buzz around these newest developments and attempts to temper predictions. When technologies emerge, there are all kinds of uncertainties, from the actual capacity of the technology to its use cases in real life to the price tag.
Eventually the dust settles, and some technologies get widely adopted, to the extent that they can become “invisible”; people take them for granted. Others fall by the wayside as gimmicky fads or impractical ideas. Picking which horses to back is the difference between Silicon Valley millions and Betamax pub-quiz-question obscurity. For a while, it seemed that Google had—for once—backed the wrong horse.
Google Glass emerged from Google X, the ubiquitous tech giant’s much-hyped moonshot factory, where highly secretive researchers work on the sci-fi technologies of the future. Self-driving cars and artificial intelligence are the more mundane end for an organization that apparently once looked into jetpacks and teleportation.
The original smart glasses, Google began selling Google Glass in 2013 for $1,500 as prototypes for their acolytes, around 8,000 early adopters. Users could control the glasses with a touchpad, or, activated by tilting the head back, with voice commands. Audio relay—as with several wearable products—is via bone conduction, which transmits sound by vibrating the skull bones of the user. This was going to usher in the age of augmented reality, the next best thing to having a chip implanted directly into your brain.
On the surface, it seemed to be a reasonable proposition. People had dreamed about augmented reality for a long time—an onboard, JARVIS-style computer giving you extra information and instant access to communications without even having to touch a button. After smartphone ubiquity, it looked like a natural step forward.
Instead, there was a backlash. People may be willing to give their data up to corporations, but they’re less pleased with the idea that someone might be filming them in public. The worst aspect of smartphones is trying to talk to people who are distractedly scrolling through their phones. There’s a famous analogy in Revolutionary Road about an old couple’s loveless marriage: the husband tunes out his wife’s conversation by turning his hearing aid down to zero. To many, Google Glass seemed to provide us with a whole new way to ignore each other in favor of our Twitter feeds.
Then there’s the fact that, regardless of whether it’s because we’re not used to them, or if it’s a more permanent feature, people wearing AR tech often look very silly. Put all this together with a lack of early functionality, the high price (do you really feel comfortable wearing a $1,500 computer?), and a killer pun for the users—Glassholes—and the final recipe wasn’t great for Google.
Google Glass was quietly dropped from sale in 2015 with the ominous slogan posted on Google’s website “Thanks for exploring with us.” Reminding the Glass users that they had always been referred to as “explorers”—beta-testing a product, in many ways—it perhaps signaled less enthusiasm for wearables than the original, Google Glass skydive might have suggested.
In reality, Google went back to the drawing board. Not with the technology per se, although it has improved in the intervening years, but with the uses behind the technology.
Under what circumstances would you actually need a Google Glass? When would it genuinely be preferable to a smartphone that can do many of the same things and more? Beyond simply being a fashion item, which Google Glass decidedly was not, even the most tech-evangelical of us need a convincing reason to splash $1,500 on a wearable computer that’s less socially acceptable and less easy to use than the machine you’re probably reading this on right now.
Enter the Google Glass Enterprise Edition.
Piloted in factories during the years that Google Glass was dormant, and now roaring back to life and commercially available, the Google Glass relaunch got under way in earnest in July of 2017. The difference here was the specific audience: workers in factories who need hands-free computing because they need to use their hands at the same time.
In this niche application, wearable computers can become invaluable. A new employee can be trained with pre-programmed material that explains how to perform actions in real time, while instructions can be relayed straight into a worker’s eyeline without them needing to check a phone or switch to email.
Medical devices have long been a dream application for Google Glass. You can imagine a situation where people receive real-time information during surgery, or are augmented by artificial intelligence that provides additional diagnostic information or questions in response to a patient’s symptoms. The quest to develop a healthcare AI, which can provide recommendations in response to natural language queries, is on. The famously untidy doctor’s handwriting—and the associated death toll—could be avoided if the glasses could take dictation straight into a patient’s medical records. All of this is far more useful than allowing people to check Facebook hands-free while they’re riding the subway.
Google’s “Lens” application indicates another use for Google Glass that hadn’t quite matured when the original was launched: the Lens processes images and provides information about them. You can look at text and have it translated in real time, or look at a building or sign and receive additional information. Image processing, either through neural networks hooked up to a cloud database or some other means, is the frontier that enables driverless cars and similar technology to exist. Hook this up to a voice-activated assistant relaying information to the user, and you have your killer application: real-time annotation of the world around you. It’s this functionality that just wasn’t ready yet when Google launched Glass.
Amazon’s recent announcement that they want to integrate Alexa into a range of smart glasses indicates that the tech giants aren’t ready to give up on wearables yet. Perhaps, in time, people will become used to voice activation and interaction with their machines, at which point smart glasses with bone conduction will genuinely be more convenient than a smartphone.
But in many ways, the real lesson from the initial failure—and promising second life—of Google Glass is a simple question that developers of any smart technology, from the Internet of Things through to wearable computers, must answer. “What can this do that my smartphone can’t?” Find your answer, as the Enterprise Edition did, as Lens might, and you find your product.
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#431599 8 Ways AI Will Transform Our Cities by ...

How will AI shape the average North American city by 2030? A panel of experts assembled as part of a century-long study into the impact of AI thinks its effects will be profound.
The One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence is the brainchild of Eric Horvitz, technical fellow and a managing director at Microsoft Research.
Every five years a panel of experts will assess the current state of AI and its future directions. The first panel, comprised of experts in AI, law, political science, policy, and economics, was launched last fall and decided to frame their report around the impact AI will have on the average American city. Here’s how they think it will affect eight key domains of city life in the next fifteen years.
1. Transportation
The speed of the transition to AI-guided transport may catch the public by surprise. Self-driving vehicles will be widely adopted by 2020, and it won’t just be cars — driverless delivery trucks, autonomous delivery drones, and personal robots will also be commonplace.
Uber-style “cars as a service” are likely to replace car ownership, which may displace public transport or see it transition towards similar on-demand approaches. Commutes will become a time to relax or work productively, encouraging people to live further from home, which could combine with reduced need for parking to drastically change the face of modern cities.
Mountains of data from increasing numbers of sensors will allow administrators to model individuals’ movements, preferences, and goals, which could have major impact on the design city infrastructure.
Humans won’t be out of the loop, though. Algorithms that allow machines to learn from human input and coordinate with them will be crucial to ensuring autonomous transport operates smoothly. Getting this right will be key as this will be the public’s first experience with physically embodied AI systems and will strongly influence public perception.
2. Home and Service Robots
Robots that do things like deliver packages and clean offices will become much more common in the next 15 years. Mobile chipmakers are already squeezing the power of last century’s supercomputers into systems-on-a-chip, drastically boosting robots’ on-board computing capacity.
Cloud-connected robots will be able to share data to accelerate learning. Low-cost 3D sensors like Microsoft’s Kinect will speed the development of perceptual technology, while advances in speech comprehension will enhance robots’ interactions with humans. Robot arms in research labs today are likely to evolve into consumer devices around 2025.
But the cost and complexity of reliable hardware and the difficulty of implementing perceptual algorithms in the real world mean general-purpose robots are still some way off. Robots are likely to remain constrained to narrow commercial applications for the foreseeable future.
3. Healthcare
AI’s impact on healthcare in the next 15 years will depend more on regulation than technology. The most transformative possibilities of AI in healthcare require access to data, but the FDA has failed to find solutions to the difficult problem of balancing privacy and access to data. Implementation of electronic health records has also been poor.
If these hurdles can be cleared, AI could automate the legwork of diagnostics by mining patient records and the scientific literature. This kind of digital assistant could allow doctors to focus on the human dimensions of care while using their intuition and experience to guide the process.
At the population level, data from patient records, wearables, mobile apps, and personal genome sequencing will make personalized medicine a reality. While fully automated radiology is unlikely, access to huge datasets of medical imaging will enable training of machine learning algorithms that can “triage” or check scans, reducing the workload of doctors.
Intelligent walkers, wheelchairs, and exoskeletons will help keep the elderly active while smart home technology will be able to support and monitor them to keep them independent. Robots may begin to enter hospitals carrying out simple tasks like delivering goods to the right room or doing sutures once the needle is correctly placed, but these tasks will only be semi-automated and will require collaboration between humans and robots.
4. Education
The line between the classroom and individual learning will be blurred by 2030. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) will interact with intelligent tutors and other AI technologies to allow personalized education at scale. Computer-based learning won’t replace the classroom, but online tools will help students learn at their own pace using techniques that work for them.
AI-enabled education systems will learn individuals’ preferences, but by aggregating this data they’ll also accelerate education research and the development of new tools. Online teaching will increasingly widen educational access, making learning lifelong, enabling people to retrain, and increasing access to top-quality education in developing countries.
Sophisticated virtual reality will allow students to immerse themselves in historical and fictional worlds or explore environments and scientific objects difficult to engage with in the real world. Digital reading devices will become much smarter too, linking to supplementary information and translating between languages.
5. Low-Resource Communities
In contrast to the dystopian visions of sci-fi, by 2030 AI will help improve life for the poorest members of society. Predictive analytics will let government agencies better allocate limited resources by helping them forecast environmental hazards or building code violations. AI planning could help distribute excess food from restaurants to food banks and shelters before it spoils.
Investment in these areas is under-funded though, so how quickly these capabilities will appear is uncertain. There are fears valueless machine learning could inadvertently discriminate by correlating things with race or gender, or surrogate factors like zip codes. But AI programs are easier to hold accountable than humans, so they’re more likely to help weed out discrimination.
6. Public Safety and Security
By 2030 cities are likely to rely heavily on AI technologies to detect and predict crime. Automatic processing of CCTV and drone footage will make it possible to rapidly spot anomalous behavior. This will not only allow law enforcement to react quickly but also forecast when and where crimes will be committed. Fears that bias and error could lead to people being unduly targeted are justified, but well-thought-out systems could actually counteract human bias and highlight police malpractice.
Techniques like speech and gait analysis could help interrogators and security guards detect suspicious behavior. Contrary to concerns about overly pervasive law enforcement, AI is likely to make policing more targeted and therefore less overbearing.
7. Employment and Workplace
The effects of AI will be felt most profoundly in the workplace. By 2030 AI will be encroaching on skilled professionals like lawyers, financial advisers, and radiologists. As it becomes capable of taking on more roles, organizations will be able to scale rapidly with relatively small workforces.
AI is more likely to replace tasks rather than jobs in the near term, and it will also create new jobs and markets, even if it’s hard to imagine what those will be right now. While it may reduce incomes and job prospects, increasing automation will also lower the cost of goods and services, effectively making everyone richer.
These structural shifts in the economy will require political rather than purely economic responses to ensure these riches are shared. In the short run, this may include resources being pumped into education and re-training, but longer term may require a far more comprehensive social safety net or radical approaches like a guaranteed basic income.
8. Entertainment
Entertainment in 2030 will be interactive, personalized, and immeasurably more engaging than today. Breakthroughs in sensors and hardware will see virtual reality, haptics and companion robots increasingly enter the home. Users will be able to interact with entertainment systems conversationally, and they will show emotion, empathy, and the ability to adapt to environmental cues like the time of day.
Social networks already allow personalized entertainment channels, but the reams of data being collected on usage patterns and preferences will allow media providers to personalize entertainment to unprecedented levels. There are concerns this could endow media conglomerates with unprecedented control over people’s online experiences and the ideas to which they are exposed.
But advances in AI will also make creating your own entertainment far easier and more engaging, whether by helping to compose music or choreograph dances using an avatar. Democratizing the production of high-quality entertainment makes it nearly impossible to predict how highly fluid human tastes for entertainment will develop.
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#431412 3 Dangerous Ideas From Ray Kurzweil

Recently, I interviewed my friend Ray Kurzweil at the Googleplex for a 90-minute webinar on disruptive and dangerous ideas, a prelude to my fireside chat with Ray at Abundance 360 this January.

Ray is my friend and cofounder and chancellor of Singularity University. He is also an XPRIZE trustee, a director of engineering at Google, and one of the best predictors of our exponential future.
It’s my pleasure to share with you three compelling ideas that came from our conversation.
1. The nation-state will soon be irrelevant.
Historically, we humans don’t like change. We like waking up in the morning and knowing that the world is the same as the night before.
That’s one reason why government institutions exist: to stabilize society.
But how will this change in 20 or 30 years? What role will stabilizing institutions play in a world of continuous, accelerating change?
“Institutions stick around, but they change their role in our lives,” Ray explained. “They already have. The nation-state is not as profound as it was. Religion used to direct every aspect of your life, minute to minute. It’s still important in some ways, but it’s much less important, much less pervasive. [It] plays a much smaller role in most people’s lives than it did, and the same is true for governments.”
Ray continues: “We are fantastically interconnected already. Nation-states are not islands anymore. So we’re already much more of a global community. The generation growing up today really feels like world citizens much more than ever before, because they’re talking to people all over the world, and it’s not a novelty.”
I’ve previously shared my belief that national borders have become extremely porous, with ideas, people, capital, and technology rapidly flowing between nations. In decades past, your cultural identity was tied to your birthplace. In the decades ahead, your identify is more a function of many other external factors. If you love space, you’ll be connected with fellow space-cadets around the globe more than you’ll be tied to someone born next door.
2. We’ll hit longevity escape velocity before we realize we’ve hit it.
Ray and I share a passion for extending the healthy human lifespan.
I frequently discuss Ray’s concept of “longevity escape velocity”—the point at which, for every year that you’re alive, science is able to extend your life for more than a year.
Scientists are continually extending the human lifespan, helping us cure heart disease, cancer, and eventually, neurodegenerative disease. This will keep accelerating as technology improves.
During my discussion with Ray, I asked him when he expects we’ll reach “escape velocity…”
His answer? “I predict it’s likely just another 10 to 12 years before the general public will hit longevity escape velocity.”
“At that point, biotechnology is going to have taken over medicine,” Ray added. “The next decade is going to be a profound revolution.”
From there, Ray predicts that nanorobots will “basically finish the job of the immune system,” with the ability to seek and destroy cancerous cells and repair damaged organs.
As we head into this sci-fi-like future, your most important job for the next 15 years is to stay alive. “Wear your seatbelt until we get the self-driving cars going,” Ray jokes.
The implications to society will be profound. While the scarcity-minded in government will react saying, “Social Security will be destroyed,” the more abundance-minded will realize that extending a person’s productive earning life space from 65 to 75 or 85 years old would be a massive boon to GDP.
3. Technology will help us define and actualize human freedoms.
The third dangerous idea from my conversation with Ray is about how technology will enhance our humanity, not detract from it.
You may have heard critics complain that technology is making us less human and increasingly disconnected.
Ray and I share a slightly different viewpoint: that technology enables us to tap into the very essence of what it means to be human.
“I don’t think humans even have to be biological,” explained Ray. “I think humans are the species that changes who we are.”
Ray argues that this began when humans developed the earliest technologies—fire and stone tools. These tools gave people new capabilities and became extensions of our physical bodies.
At its base level, technology is the means by which we change our environment and change ourselves. This will continue, even as the technologies themselves evolve.
“People say, ‘Well, do I really want to become part machine?’ You’re not even going to notice it,” Ray says, “because it’s going to be a sensible thing to do at each point.”
Today, we take medicine to fight disease and maintain good health and would likely consider it irresponsible if someone refused to take a proven, life-saving medicine.
In the future, this will still happen—except the medicine might have nanobots that can target disease or will also improve your memory so you can recall things more easily.
And because this new medicine works so well for so many, public perception will change. Eventually, it will become the norm… as ubiquitous as penicillin and ibuprofen are today.
In this way, ingesting nanorobots, uploading your brain to the cloud, and using devices like smart contact lenses can help humans become, well, better at being human.
Ray sums it up: “We are the species that changes who we are to become smarter and more profound, more beautiful, more creative, more musical, funnier, sexier.”
Speaking of sexuality and beauty, Ray also sees technology expanding these concepts. “In virtual reality, you can be someone else. Right now, actually changing your gender in real reality is a pretty significant, profound process, but you could do it in virtual reality much more easily and you can be someone else. A couple could become each other and discover their relationship from the other’s perspective.”
In the 2030s, when Ray predicts sensor-laden nanorobots will be able to go inside the nervous system, virtual or augmented reality will become exceptionally realistic, enabling us to “be someone else and have other kinds of experiences.”
Why Dangerous Ideas Matter
Why is it so important to discuss dangerous ideas?
I often say that the day before something is a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea.
By consuming and considering a steady diet of “crazy ideas,” you train yourself to think bigger and bolder, a critical requirement for making impact.
As humans, we are linear and scarcity-minded.
As entrepreneurs, we must think exponentially and abundantly.
At the end of the day, the formula for a true breakthrough is equal to “having a crazy idea” you believe in, plus the passion to pursue that idea against all naysayers and obstacles.
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#431371 Amazon Is Quietly Building the Robots of ...

Science fiction is the siren song of hard science. How many innocent young students have been lured into complex, abstract science, technology, engineering, or mathematics because of a reckless and irresponsible exposure to Arthur C. Clarke at a tender age? Yet Arthur C. Clarke has a very famous quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
It’s the prospect of making that… ahem… magic leap that entices so many people into STEM in the first place. A magic leap that would change the world. How about, for example, having humanoid robots? They could match us in dexterity and speed, perceive the world around them as we do, and be programmed to do, well, more or less anything we can do.
Such a technology would change the world forever.
But how will it arrive? While true sci-fi robots won’t get here right away—the pieces are coming together, and the company best developing them at the moment is Amazon. Where others have struggled to succeed, Amazon has been quietly progressing. Notably, Amazon has more than just a dream, it has the most practical of reasons driving it into robotics.
This practicality matters. Technological development rarely proceeds by magic; it’s a process filled with twists, turns, dead-ends, and financial constraints. New technologies often have to answer questions like “What is this good for, are you being realistic?” A good strategy, then, can be to build something more limited than your initial ambition, but useful for a niche market. That way, you can produce a prototype, have a reasonable business plan, and turn a profit within a decade. You might call these “stepping stone” applications that allow for new technologies to be developed in an economically viable way.
You need something you can sell to someone, soon: that’s how you get investment in your idea. It’s this model that iRobot, developers of the Roomba, used: migrating from military prototypes to robotic vacuum cleaners to become the “boring, successful robot company.” Compare this to Willow Garage, a genius factory if ever there was one: they clearly had ambitions towards a general-purpose, multi-functional robot. They built an impressive device—PR2—and programmed the operating system, ROS, that is still the industry and academic standard to this day.
But since they were unable to sell their robot for much less than $250,000, it was never likely to be a profitable business. This is why Willow Garage is no more, and many workers at the company went into telepresence robotics. Telepresence is essentially videoconferencing with a fancy robot attached to move the camera around. It uses some of the same software (for example, navigation and mapping) without requiring you to solve difficult problems of full autonomy for the robot, or manipulating its environment. It’s certainly one of the stepping-stone areas that various companies are investigating.
Another approach is to go to the people with very high research budgets: the military.
This was the Boston Dynamics approach, and their incredible achievements in bipedal locomotion saw them getting snapped up by Google. There was a great deal of excitement and speculation about Google’s “nightmare factory” whenever a new slick video of a futuristic militarized robot surfaced. But Google broadly backed away from Replicant, their robotics program, and Boston Dynamics was sold. This was partly due to PR concerns over the Terminator-esque designs, but partly because they didn’t see the robotics division turning a profit. They hadn’t found their stepping stones.
This is where Amazon comes in. Why Amazon? First off, they just announced that their profits are up by 30 percent, and yet the company is well-known for their constantly-moving Day One philosophy where a great deal of the profits are reinvested back into the business. But lots of companies have ambition.
One thing Amazon has that few other corporations have, as well as big financial resources, is viable stepping stones for developing the technologies needed for this sort of robotics to become a reality. They already employ 100,000 robots: these are of the “pragmatic, boring, useful” kind that we’ve profiled, which move around the shelves in warehouses. These robots are allowing Amazon to develop localization and mapping software for robots that can autonomously navigate in the simple warehouse environment.
But their ambitions don’t end there. The Amazon Robotics Challenge is a multi-million dollar competition, open to university teams, to produce a robot that can pick and package items in warehouses. The problem of grasping and manipulating a range of objects is not a solved one in robotics, so this work is still done by humans—yet it’s absolutely fundamental for any sci-fi dream robot.
Google, for example, attempted to solve this problem by hooking up 14 robot hands to machine learning algorithms and having them grasp thousands of objects. Although results were promising, the 10 to 20 percent failure rate for grasps is too high for warehouse use. This is a perfect stepping stone for Amazon; should they crack the problem, they will likely save millions in logistics.
Another area where humanoid robotics—especially bipedal locomotion, or walking, has been seriously suggested—is in the last mile delivery problem. Amazon has shown willingness to be creative in this department with their notorious drone delivery service. In other words, it’s all very well to have your self-driving car or van deliver packages to people’s doors, but who puts the package on the doorstep? It’s difficult for wheeled robots to navigate the full range of built environments that exist. That’s why bipedal robots like CASSIE, developed by Oregon State, may one day be used to deliver parcels.
Again: no one more than Amazon stands to profit from cracking this technology. The line from robotics research to profit is very clear.
So, perhaps one day Amazon will have robots that can move around and manipulate their environments. But they’re also working on intelligence that will guide those robots and make them truly useful for a variety of tasks. Amazon has an AI, or at least the framework for an AI: it’s called Alexa, and it’s in tens of millions of homes. The Alexa Prize, another multi-million-dollar competition, is attempting to make Alexa more social.
To develop a conversational AI, at least using the current methods of machine learning, you need data on tens of millions of conversations. You need to understand how people will try to interact with the AI. Amazon has access to this in Alexa, and they’re using it. As owners of the leading voice-activated personal assistant, they have an ecosystem of developers creating apps for Alexa. It will be integrated with the smart home and the Internet of Things. It is a very marketable product, a stepping stone for robot intelligence.
What’s more, the company can benefit from its huge sales infrastructure. For Amazon, having an AI in your home is ideal, because it can persuade you to buy more products through its website. Unlike companies like Google, Amazon has an easy way to make a direct profit from IoT devices, which could fuel funding.
For a humanoid robot to be truly useful, though, it will need vision and intelligence. It will have to understand and interpret its environment, and react accordingly. The way humans learn about our environment is by getting out and seeing it. This is something that, for example, an Alexa coupled to smart glasses would be very capable of doing. There are rumors that Alexa’s AI will soon be used in security cameras, which is an ideal stepping stone task to train an AI to process images from its environment, truly perceiving the world and any threats it might contain.
It’s a slight exaggeration to say that Amazon is in the process of building a secret robot army. The gulf between our sci-fi vision of robots that can intelligently serve us, rather than mindlessly assemble cars, is still vast. But in quietly assembling many of the technologies needed for intelligent, multi-purpose robotics—and with the unique stepping stones they have along the way—Amazon might just be poised to leap that gulf. As if by magic.
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