AI News, AI Summit 2019

I welcomed our new robot overlords at Amazon’s first AI conference

There’s a certain oversized quality to a Las Vegas conference center that makes you feel like a child monarch: simultaneously powerful and helpless.

As Amazon exec Dave Limp explains during the opening keynote, we’re all builders and dreamers, and we’ve been summoned to this hideously carpeted conference center to “envision the future.” It’s actually a fine speech by the standard of tech keynotes: lighthearted, inspirational, unfocused.

But it’s only when I’m slumped on a “party bus” three days later, driving back from the event’s final night festivities at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, when I begin to understand what Limp was talking about — what re:MARS is really about — and it’s not, strictly speaking, the future of the world.

Amazon chose to sell books because they’re “pure commodities,” according to Brad Stone’s 2013 history, The Everything Store, so the customer always knows what they’re getting.

It launched in 2006 as a “data storage service,” but it has since become indispensable to modern tech companies — as necessary as paper clips once were but a damn sight more profitable.

It’s a way to encourage engineers to scale up their ambitions, says the company, with anyone able to enter an AI driver on a USB flash drive.

“These things are usually one big advertisement,” one attendee told me as we watched the self-driving model cars veer out of reach of their handlers like rabbits at a petting zoo.

“It seems like they’re trying to get the smartest people in the same building and get them to talk to one another,” said Michael Bell, a PhD candidate and research fellow at Harvard’s School of Engineering who was demoing the university’s latest work with soft robotic grippers.

Last month, Bezos unveiled plans for a Moon lander built by his company Blue Origin before outlining a Panglossian vision of space colonization, with a trillion souls living in space in huge, forest-filled rotating colonies.

There was the new Prime Air delivery drone, which is due to start dropping packages in “the coming months.” There was the six-wheeled Scout robot, which is currently being put through its paces in a digital simulacrum of suburbia.

Most of the robots that companies use now are big, dumb, and strong — the type you see lifting car doors and making spot welds in factories.

They use AI and sensors to see us coming and adapt to unplanned challenges, and the thought of giving machines even basic brains is what justifies every headline you see about automation threatening jobs.

At re:MARS, it also showed off how its infrastructure will make it easier to have robots in the home, with Alexa acting as a hub to control iRobot’s new mopping, vacuuming, and lawn-mowing machines.

Executives say the robots are taking over boring tasks and freeing up employees to do “more satisfying jobs.” But employees say that looking after the robots — which frequently break down or malfunction — is becoming a full job, reported The Washington Post this month.

At the same time, employees say their work has become more mechanical, like the humans Amazon employs as “pickers” in its warehouses who stay in one place putting items in boxes while machines dance around them with shelves of products.

Midway through Bezos’ Q&A during the final keynote speeches, a protestor from animal welfare group Direct Action Everywhere burst onto the stage, demanding that the CEO do something about the treatment of chickens in farms that sell to his companies.

It’s simply a matter of focusing on the right qualities — faster shipping, cheaper prices — and grinding away until you achieve your goal.

This might explain why so many tech luminaries are scared of a runaway AI scenario, in which a super intelligent machine fixates on a single task (like building paper clips) and accidentally destroys humanity in the process.

One told me that space colonization was the 21st century’s new religion, a higher purpose that would only become more important after robots robbed us of the meaning provided by work.

thought that sounded about right as I stood in a crowd watching a huge exoskeleton robot tow a vintage 13,000-pound fire truck.

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