AI News, Astro Teller, Captain of Moonshots at X, on the Future of AI, Robots, and Coffeemakers

Astro Teller, Captain of Moonshots at X, on the Future of AI, Robots, and Coffeemakers

In order for them to have the best chance to solve a real problem and to continue to grow, to flourish, to have a bigger impact on the world, some nuance needs to be added to “personal robotics.” The phrase you just used is not a problem.

And we get into an interesting conversation about issues of safety and cost and when you’d actually adopt that, but I’m not pushing back because I don’t believe in personal robotics: I deeply believe in personal robotics, but getting the details right is the difference between success and failure.

So what is it that—I’m pushing back on you now—you want to see, and don’t tell me personal robotics, tell me a very concrete thing in your life you wished a robot would solve and that you believe you’d spend on the order of five to tenthousand dollars on to have it fixed.

You just painted a picture of a platform for learning about what these robots could do, they are in a thousand homes—you reference Glass, we had some interesting learnings, positively and negatively, with that—let’s say we had an explorer program and a thousand people were buying these robots, what do you think they’d pay for them?

Teller: Well, but now you’ve proposed an interesting alternate thing, which is, Alphabet or some other company would spenda huge amount of money to develop some new thing for which it’s not clear what the value is, then build a whole bunch of them, and give them to people without charging them.

A moonshot, by definition, is a huge problem, which we can name, a radical proposed solution to the huge problem, and a clear, articulatable set of hard technology aspects, which we have some reason to believe would build the radical solution, which would solve the hard problem.

Spectrum: I guess I keep going back to what I see as a huge problem, which is, “Give me more time to do the things I want to do.” Whether the solution will take the shape of a humanoid robot or just a mobile dishwasher-looking machine with arms, I don’t know and I don’t care, I just want it to do my chores for me.

Teller: I think that one of the interesting and unanswered questions, which we’re serious about looking into, and I’m sure the rest of the world is also, is “Can your time best be saved by a single all-purpose thing or by a range of special-purpose things?”

How to Stop Robocalls Once and For All

Unsolicited telemarketing calls have long been a bane of modern life, interrupting evenings with offers of insurance, extended warranties, credit counseling, and a litany of other expensive services that you never needed or asked for.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which has governance over landline communications, thought it had fixed the problem in September, 2009, when the agency revised its Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR), banning the use of prerecorded commercial telemarketing calls, aka robocalls, to consumers who have not provided permission previously and in writing.

Now, the TCPA amendments regulate the volume and types of prerecorded solicitations that may delivered to a land line phone as well as every auto-dialed call, prerecorded or not, and automated texts to cell phones, emergency numbers, and hospital rooms.

The only exceptions to this rule are political calls to land lines (the cost of picking one's political party when renewing your driver's license), purely informational messages like school lock downs, flight cancellations, and emergency weather alerts, and those from companies that you've given written permission.

The two agencies also joined forces to create the National Do Not Call registry, a database of people who have actively opted out of receiving telemarketing calls by which legitimate telemarketers must abide.

While these enhanced rules are definitely a step in the right direction, unfortunately they're no match for modern technology, which can spam-dial thousands of phones every minute, and the unscrupulous scammers that use them, who honestly couldn't care less about interrupting your meal much less some $16,000 ticket from the government.

During the 2012 fiscal year nearly four million Americans contacted the FTC to complain about robocalls—a 70 percent jump over the previous year—and that's only the folks that knew about the DNC registry.

You can also ask your ph0one carrier to block the offending number, so long as the carrier doesn't charge for the service as robocallers frequently change or spoof their originating numbers.

As technology progresses, an arms race between scammers looking for new and inventive ways to reach your ears and public-private efforts to shore up home phone defense seems inevitable.

Do Robots Take People's Jobs?

Last month, President Barack Obama announced the National Robotics Initiative, a major program to develop next-generation robots for manufacturing, healthcare, and other areas.

The robotics community received the new initiative with enthusiasm, but some observers expressed concern about an expansion in automation, raising a perennial question in robotics: Do robots take people’s jobs?

“The real purpose of automating manufacturing is to eliminate skilled workers and replace them with low paid button pushers—preferably offshore,” commented one IEEE Spectrum reader who’s worked as a control engineer for 25 years.

“It talked about the personal robotics revolution, how it was going to be bigger than the computer industry, and I said, I want to go into robots.” Dulchinos says that automation, though it might take some people’s jobs in the short term, is essential for keeping companies competitive, and thus able to expand and hire more workers.

The entire robotics industry is only a 5 billion dollar market today, he says, but according to some estimates it will grow to 100 billion by 2020.

He envisions future domestic robots helping people at home and factory robots that are not job takers but rather robotic assistants that work alongside human workers.

(Just don't let a robot borrow your iPhone.) Read below my full interview with Dulchinos, in which he discusses how countries like Germany and China are using robots to improve manufacturing, and how a new generation of smart factory robots could do the same in the United States.

Robots elicit an emotional response from people because they are personified as people, but really what robots do is they enhance productivity and they free people up to do other tasks.

In a global economy where cost rules, the only way for Western countries to be able to compete effectively against low-cost labor markets is through productivity gains, and robots are one way to achieve that.

And while you’d argue that tractors and cotton mills and other machines eliminated a number of farming jobs, the reality is that the mechanization enhanced the productivity of farming to a point where people went into manufacturing, into engineering, into a variety of industries that spun the industrial age and then the information age in the United States.

If you follow this logic that if a specific task is automated that means a person now goes to the unemployment line, then we would have tens or hundreds of thousands of secretaries in the unemployment line.

And so if you want to extrapolate that, you'll realize that China, which has the lowest labor costs in the industrialized world, is putting in robots at a pace that is on par with the United States and soon will be faster than the United States.

That has the potential to shake up the industry and create an inflection point where the United States can compete with Japan, Korea, Europe, and China—all of which are all spending much more money on robotics RD than the United States—and gain a leadership position in next-generation robotics to enhance global competitiveness across a host of industries.

The Obama initiative, which is a beginning, is a way to bring some focus and value that can push the U.S. robotics industry forward, and give companies a chance to compete fairly in the global economy.

These robots are not taking doctors' jobs away—they’re making doctors more efficient, enabling them to perform a surgery with a higher level of precision and consistency.

I think that once robots reach a certain cost point, you'll have a robot in your home, doing laundry for you, helping with vacuuming and cleaning, or imagine robots at hospitals delivering supplies to the OR.

So what I think the government can do—and I would say that the last thing that this industry needs is a handout from the government—what I’m looking for the Obama administration and the government to help with is to create a robotics domestic market here.

To allow people to create a new generation robotics company and don’t have to worry about fighting a lot of regulatory tape or being sued for early applications, we need to take down some of the regulatory barriers.

The United States could take a leadership role in defining how robots and people can coexist in a safe manner and enable this assistive robotics environment to expand.

Google demonstrated earlier this year that they drove a robotic car over 100,000 miles and that allowed them to prove that an autonomous vehicle has potential to be in highways.

We see jobs where a person is picking up 10-pound cylinders of meat and putting into a box, 30 to 40 times a minute, eight hours a day.

When a disk driver manufacturer decides to automate a factory, it’s not because they want to get rid of labor per se, it’s because people can’t do the job at the level of cleanliness and yield that is required to be competitive in that space.

And with a little bit of focus from the government to help push some technologies forward and push the regulatory environment in the right direction, I think that the United States can win this race.

Success 10 years from now will be that there’s a number of U.S. robotics companies and they’re leaders in creating next-generation robots that permeate our everyday lives.

Meet Atlas, the Robot Designed to Save the Day

The latest innovation from the U.S. Defense Department’s research agency, DARPA, is a humanoid robot called Atlas that looks as if it could’ve walked straight off the set of the latest Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster.

In fact, Atlas is designed to eventually take on some of the most dangerous and high-stakes jobs imaginable, such as tending to a nuclear reactor during a meltdown, shutting off a deep-water oil spill, or helping to put out a raging wildfire.

Atlas was unveiled on Thursday at Boston Dynamics, a company based in Waltham, Massachusetts, that has already developed an impressive menagerie of robotic beasts, some with funding from the Department of Defense, including a headless robot pack mule called LS3, a gecko-like, wall-climbing bot called RiSE, and a four-legged machine called Cheetah capable of bounding along at 29 miles per hour.

The six-foot-tall, 330-pound robot has 28 degrees of freedom enabled by powerful hydraulically driven joints that allow it to not only carry heavy objects but adjust with remarkable speed to loss of balance.

The seven teams competing in the latter track will each be loaned an Atlas by DARPA to perfect their code.  The teams enrolled in the challenge will spend the next few months training their robots to compete in a grueling physical contest designed to gauge their ability to perform tasks that would challenge many humans.

it’s been a real pleasure to see and touch and use the real hardware.” The teams given Atlas robots will have to develop control software that will allow human controllers to operate the robots despite significant time delays—a constraint designed to mimic the challenge of operating from through the walls of a crumbling nuclear plant, or at a far-flung distance.

Delivery drones will mean the end ofownership

The way I would like to function, the way I think most of us here at X function, is to focus instead on asking the questions for the kinds of futures that we imagine might be possible.

One hundred years ago when the steam engine was introduced or the telegraph or the telephone, [and] somewhat later the television, those things spread through humanity much faster.

Fast-forward to today, the time between when a new technology is introduced and when it’s completely changed the world has continued to shrink at a fast rate.

The patent system was built 130–140 years ago around the idea that you would be granted a temporary monopoly for your idea, it would last about 20 years and you would harvest a lot of value during that time.

[But] now technology is changing so fast, by the time you get the patent it’s often not worth that much anymore because [it’s] old news… The way we make laws and regulate technology is another good example where the pace at which we understand the technology and then build laws around that technology is now going sufficiently slower than the technology itself.

The rate at which society copes with new technologies and their ramifications for society is partly rate limited by how we educate both the young people and adults in this country.

If technology is continuing to change faster and faster and we don’t get better and better at educating our children to adapt to these changes, then we, the public sector and the education system, are failing our children.

don’t mean to suggest that technologists don’t have a role to play in how society adapts to new technologies, but certainly other aspects of society also have to pitch in so that society can really elegantly and smoothly keep pace with the technology changes that are happening.

Artificial intelligence is going to turn out, I predict — it’s a dangerous thing as I’ve said to try to predict the future — [to be] technology that profoundly changes the world.

Surely the bad guys in the cyber security world will use smart interesting ways of counting, [or] artificial intelligence by another name, to enable them to do bad things.

think a lot of people have a vision of the future in which they wake up in the morning and shout to their virtual assistant to perform tasks for them — we already do this.

think that people will have a pretty wide spectrum of how much data they feel comfortable sharing, but I think it’s fair to say that even wealthy people who can afford a personal [human] assistant have a pretty wide spectrum on the kinds of stuff that they will share with their assistants.

It turns out that that hasn’t actually caused people to lose their jobs because people spend their time making levers and because it turned out that instead of one person moving the boulder that used to cost you 10 people… you would use that one person to move that one boulder [and] you have nine other people moving their own boulders.

In order to believe that all jobs are going to go away, which is a rather extreme view, but certainly one that some people are saying, I think you would have to believe that there’s an end to the problems in the world.

It is a failure of imagination on our collective parts that we can’t see how, when robots take [over] some of what we’re currently doing, it won’t just level us up to the next level.

Every time we have, as a society, as a species, removed another big chunk of the friction in how physical things are moved around in the physical world — boats, planes, trains, horses and the pony express, the mail system — [we have] profoundly changed society.

If that hammer was sitting in some central location, it could be shared by thousands of people, really safely, making everybody wealthier functionally because they would get the hammer when they need it without having to pay for the hammer and drain the world’s resources by making all of these hammers that go almost entirely unused.

Because you don’t know and because it’s surprisingly inconvenient to go to CVS or Walgreens to get another battery, you just keep all of these batteries in your home that are slowly discharging, most of which will hit zero without you ever using them.

I’ve actually already seen designs for skyscrapers that have little mini-heliports sticking outside the window so that UAVs can drop packages on people’s windows in high-rises or just outside their windows or maybe land and then someone can take the package right there.

Maybe I’m just missing the addiction, so it doesn’t seem that bad to me, but I believe that this is not the first time that people have panicked that technology or other kinds of innovations in society were going to ruin society.

hope that in the end, when we look back at X 10 years from now, 20 years from now, the process that I’ve described to you our attempt to systematize innovation, to get that balance of crazy optimism and really hard skepticism, married together and balanced [will be] just right.

In the same way, while I’m very proud of some of the things that have already graduated from X — the self-driving cars, the life sciences project, the deep learning work called Google Brain that went back to Google.