17 Conference Report #techonomy17

Can We Handle the Coming Convergence of Man and Machine?


  • From left: UCSD's Benjamin Bratton, Mary Lou Jepsen of Openwater, Savioke's Tessa Lau, Rohit Prasad from Amazon, and David Kirkpatrick in conversation during their panel at Techonomy 2017. Photo Credit: Paul Sakuma Photography


Benjamin H. Bratton
Professor, Visual Arts, University of California, San Diego

Mary Lou Jepsen
Founder and CEO, Openwater

Tessa Lau
CTO and Chief Robot Whisperer, Savioke

Rohit Prasad
Vice President and Head Scientist -- Alexa Machine Learning, Amazon


David Kirkpatrick
Founder and CEO, Techonomy

Session Description: It seems like computers are starting to merge with our minds, bodies, and maybe even our souls. What new society emerges? What strange, semi-automated netherworld are we hurtling towards?

An excerpt of the panel can be found below, with the full transcript accessible here.

Kirkpatrick: Let me quickly introduce you to our four panelists here. From the far end, Benjamin Bratton is a professor in the art department in the University of California at San Diego. But he’s also trained in both sociology and computer science. And what was the other thing you do that’s—

Bratton: Philosophy.

Kirkpatrick: Philosophy, you teach that? He does a lot of things; he’s quite a Renaissance person.

Mary Lou Jepsen is also a Renaissance person, who was at one point named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine. A longtime friend of mine who I first met when she was the chief technology officer and co-founder of the One Laptop per Child initiative with Nicholas Negroponte, which really had a catalytic effect on the devices that we have in the world today. She’s got some interesting things to say about her current project, which is called Openwater.

Tessa Lau is the chief robot whisper and chief technology officer at a company called Savioke, which builds robots for delivery.

Finally, Rohit Prasad is the head scientist for Alexa Machine Learning at Amazon and a vice president of Amazon. Obviously Alexa has had a catalytic effect on everything. In fact, two years ago, those of you who were here will recall, we had an Alexa on stage, just because we thought it was so cool; we just wanted to see how we could use it on stage. We didn’t think of too many good ways at the time, but at least we were telling the world, “This is a fundamentally new change in technology.”

Maybe we should start with you, Rohit. When you think about what you’re doing with Alexa, talk about it from the biggest picture standpoint, what is going on with this new interface and connection to the cloud and AI deployment?

Prasad: So fundamentally, what’s going on is we’re trying to improve daily convenience. With everything you think about—like, we all grew up, a lot of us here, grew up with Star Trek—when that was airing. And you’ll remember the convenience of being able to talk to a computer without any touch or looking at it. It was just so liberating as a concept. So we brought that to fruition with Echo. And the goal is, indeed, to make everything be easy by the most natural means of communicating, which is voice, which is what we are born with when we start off in our lives. It is the most easy, convenient way. And if you had a computer that was built into everything and was available everywhere: you can play your favorite tune, you can reorder batteries for instance, you can set up a meeting—all of this just by voice, is extremely liberating. What’s also happening with the deluge of devices and services that are connected now, that if you are picking up your smartphone and trying to find how to turn on the light or check on your garage light, that has too many steps. Alexa removes that from you. So ultimately, it’s all about daily convenience so that you can do more with your time.

Kirkpatrick: Do you think of this as being sort of the interface of the future? Is more and more of our intersection with computing going to happen via voice, in your view and in the view of Amazon?

Prasad: Definitely a lot will happen with voice. But it’s not going to replace everything we know as it exists, as well. I mean, there’s a place for touch, there’s a place for screen—and there will be many other haptic feedback mechanisms in terms of interfaces. But voice will find more and more actions that we want to take in our daily lives. [Many things] will be done by voice and that’s what we are after right now.

Kirkpatrick: When we talk, you know, in the session title about the convergence of man and machine, people and machines, we are accused by some of sexism, but we didn’t intend that. Is that where you see us going? Is the world kind of reaching a point where software and systems and human intelligence are getting a little conflated? You know, long term?

Prasad: I wouldn’t say they are getting conflated. They all have different strengths. If you think about machines, they are better at computing. If you asked a machine to compute a factorial, it’s way more easy for a machine to do it than humans. If you asked a machine to search across a massive catalogue of music or video, again, for machines it’s easier. I think what we are going to find more—and this is beyond Alexa—we’ll find more and more collaborative tools with AI and machine learning in general, where you will be able to do more with machines and humans working together.

Kirkpatrick: Okay. We’ll get back to some implications of that. But thank you so much. So let’s just go down the row here. Tessa, how do you whisper to robots?

Lau: I think we all grew up in a world where robots are the future, right? We all grew up with the science fiction and the stories and the movies, and we all want to make robots happen. And the way I’m helping to do that is by birthing a new generation of service-delivery robots. And I happen to whisper to them in order to get them to do their job. Robots are fairly complex things, and so one of the things that I am passionate about is how do we make them function in today’s society and do things that are productive and help people, in order to make their way in the world?

Kirkpatrick: So talk a little bit more exactly about what your robots are doing right now.

Lau: We started Savioke with a vision of getting robots out into the world. You know, we all have this dream about a future in which robot assistants are everywhere. But it turns out that robotics is pretty hard, and so one step at a time. The first step that we’re taking is to get robots out into hotels doing room-service delivery. So a Savioke Relay will park at the front desk and he’ll bring your food, your dinner, your toothbrush, directly up to your room. He’ll take the elevator; he’ll push the buttons using Wi-Fi, walk down to your room; he’ll tell you when he’s there by calling your phone, and then he’ll bring you your item. And this is changing the way hotels are providing guest services inside their properties.

Kirkpatrick: He doesn’t speak, right?

Lau: So Relay deliberately does not speak and it was because four years ago, when we started, Alexa didn’t exist, and, you know, that kind of technology was not mature enough.

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