The future is now: Robots, self-driving cars and a moon settlement at Collision

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Rodolphe Gelin, chief scientific officer at SoftBank Robotics, and Pepper the robot. - COURTESY COLLISION CONF
  • COURTESY COLLISION CONF
  • Rodolphe Gelin, chief scientific officer at SoftBank Robotics, and Pepper the robot.

"My purpose is to interact with humans," a friendly robot named Pepper tells me. We're at  the Collision conference, where's he's about to help me write a song on invisible instruments.

Pepper is the brainchild of SoftBank Robotics, and several units (Peppers?) are available in an upstairs conference room for our engagement. When I meet him, colorful lights around his oversized, anime-style pupils flash, and a red laser hidden in the center of his eye tracks my facial expressions, so Pepper can listen and react to me. As he listens, his head tilts toward me and his hands flex ever so slightly, like a person fidgeting.

Via a screen attached to his chest, Pepper shows me a game. In empty space in front of him, I can strike three invisible "boxes" to play notes — like mid-air Dance Dance Revolution game without the floor pad. Pepper plays piano arpeggios as a background to the notes I play, and as I hit thin air, lights on a nearby table flash in unison. Then the robot plays the song back for me, and dances.

It's beautiful — and chilling.

*

Collision is more than just a robotics show. Billed as "America's fastest growing tech conference," it's actually a collection of conferences that span a variety of industries. It draws speakers and participants from Silicon Valley, other startup and entrepreneurial communities, entertainment industry professionals, marketers and more to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center for several days of panels, activities and schmoozing. Speakers this year included names as big and diverse as Alexis Ohanian, Reddit founder and future husband of Serena Williams; investment capital luminary and compulsive Twitter user Chris Sacca; former Fugee Wyclef Jean; former New Orleans Saint Marques Colston; and so on.

I go for some insight into the tech community, which can seem rarified and far away from New Orleans, and to learn about the possible futures we Americans might encounter — if we manage not to destroy ourselves before we get there. The contradictions of this particular cultural moment can be dizzying, and are inextricable from the rising technologies on display at the conference.

Throughout the day, I'll see a wearable exoskeleton that can help spinal cord injury patients rise and walk, hear a discussion with a company developing a literal flying car ("automated air taxi") and listen to Steve Rabuchin from Amazon describe his ambitions for Alexa, its automated voice assistant: he wants it embedded in automobiles, wearables and household devices such as the smart thermostat unveiled yesterday at the conference. ("If you believe in voice, as we do, as a significant new interface ... [you'll see Alexa in] everything from door locks to sprinklers to garage door openers.")

But these Star Trekian products don't act as a corrective to the fraying social fabric and general feeling of economic insecurity which was revealed so dramatically by the surprise election of President Donald Trump, At a panel on the ways the internet may be destabilizing our politics — it's by far the most poorly attended panel I go to all day — the Cato Institute's Emily Ekins and Democratic campaign vet Teddy Goff touch on the rise and amplification of white nationalism as a result of technology, and the economic and demographic forces at play in a society that seems increasingly unstable, often as a direct result of our imperfect grappling with the new technologies available to us.

"[Technology] has costs, but also has tremendous benefits," Ekins insists. "[The internet] is not so much destabilizing as much as disrupting."

*

Collision is set up more or less like a typical expo or trade show, but instead of product exhibitors, most of the booths are operated by startup companies in various stages of development. There's the "Alpha" section for young startups and "Beta" for returning companies, and all the (mostly young, mostly male) entrepreneurs stand around waiting to participate in pitch competitions and mentorship meetings, and to network with the investors and venture capitalists who stalk the conference looking for their next project. (At one point, I stumble upon a table littered with pens carrying the logo of villainous investment bank Goldman Sachs.)

Some of the startups I walk past seem absurd to the point of self-parody; one man buttonholes me to talk about his Tinder-style app in which you can charge visitors to your city a few bucks to offer them advice on restaurants and bars. There's also GiftsUWish ("crowdfund your perfect present"), Flipsnap ("allows users to seamlessly merge themselves into videos with their favorite brands"), AR Jet Set Club ("a global private members-only airline") and DailyMynd ("a new and fun content mining aggregator ... get the facts and create memes!")

But some projects seem useful, and even inspired. There's FacePhysio, an app which helps people recover from facial paralysis by using face-recognition technology and games. Ready Responders allows part-time paramedics to answer 911 calls. And I stop to talk to the founders of GoodBookey, which allows you to make charitable donations in the guise of casual sports betting with your friends. (The loser's money is routed to a charity of his or her choice.)

"We're redirecting degenerative behavior to do some good," co-founder Bryan Martin jokes.

Martin and his partner, Daniel Shugan, are at the conference for a second year. When I talk to them, they've just been invited to a second round of pitching to investors.

I ask them how they're feeling about the future, and they exchange looks.

"I have one-year-old twins, so they make me feel like the future's going to be great," Martin says. He knows the world has a lot of problems, but says "people that make shit happen will always make it happen."

Shugan is more circumspect, but "that's my general demeanor," he says. For a moment he looks genuinely worried. "There's so much stupid shit going on in the world. There's so many things that could go wrong." He mentions global warming, and instability related to North Korea. "At the same time, humans, in general, have been around for a while," he says.

*

Near the startup booths, roboticists, engineers working on the self-driving car, and people working on "intelligent" products (like Alexa) speak at the AutoTech & TalkRobot stage. This is where I end up spending most of the day, listening to almost every moderator make the same nervous joke about the robots who've come to take our jobs.

At one panel, "The Race to Replace Human Drivers," Louay Eldada of Quanergy shows us the LIDAR sensor that is the "brain" behind a self-driving car — it's a glossy black box about the size of a pack of cigarettes that sees the world through laser mapping. He thinks what we think of as a fully self-driving car, "where the vehicle will pick you up without a human being in it, or a car will go park itself," will be widely available by 2025. At another talk, Hideaki Mukai of Japan's Rakuten proudly shows off a video of a fully autonomous drone that's being used on golf courses to deliver beverages to golfers from the clubhouse. (During a pilot program, the most common delivery was beer.)

Throughout the day, but particularly at afternoon robotics panels, the journalists and commentators moderating the panels press the speakers on how the technology they're working on will affect society, and particularly the workplace. Though some futurists predict that self-driving cars will be more disruptive to human employment, potentially eliminating as many as 5 million jobs, it's robotics that seem to elicit a more visceral reaction from workers, who fear that robots will do the work of humans faster, and for no pay.

Carbon Robotics CEO Rosanna Myers mostly dismisses these concerns. (Her company makes an easily programmable robotic arm that's intended for use in manufacturing settings.)

"We're starting to see what we think of as doing work is changing," she says, arguing that many companies have trouble finding workers to fill certain positions. "[Robots do] tasks that people don't want to do and no human should have to do. ... The tools should amplify what it means to be human."

Melonee Wise, "robot ninja" at Fetch Robotics, acknowledges that robots have a bad reputation, but seems frustrated by the inevitability of this discussion.

"There is a lot of bad PR around robots and jobs. You have to ingratiate the robot into [workers'] presence," she says. "[But] these companies have to increase productivity, and automation is the way to do it."

But the thing is, productivity isn't the central question preoccupying most workers. In fact, many economists argue that productivity has been steadily rising since the 1970s. What's changed is the radio of productivity to wage growth. If Myers' premise is correct —  companies are having trouble filling positions — it could be because companies simply aren't paying enough for it to be "worth it" to do certain jobs. And it's hard to imagine a situation in which automation and robotics will do anything about that issue.

When I meet the robot Pepper, I ask SoftBank Robotics' marketing manager Alia Pyros about the jobs problem. She also has (what seems like) a carefully rehearsed response. The company envisions Pepper working in hospitality settings — one of the $25,000 units already lives in the Oakland airport — and Pyros says Pepper will excel at monotonous, repetitive tasks that hospitality professionals get tired of doing anyway.

"[Pepper is] able to memorize countless pieces of data. ... [but more importantly], Pepper is able to say the same thing over and over without being annoyed," she tells me. "It's not really meant to replace jobs as much as augment the experience a bit."

But the obvious question, it seems to me, is what happens when robotics is sufficiently advanced to the point where even those more complex tasks can be performed by a robot. Event the panelists' explanations of the scale of problems that still need to be solved, such as semantic issues (robots struggling to identify discrete objects) aren't especially satisfying. After all, a computer's learning doesn't have to be confined to a lesson; they are never bored and never tired, can scan millions of images in a fraction of the time as a person, and can connect to a network to share their knowledge with other units.

At her panel ("Are We Ready to Embrace Robot Coworkers?") Wise imagines one solution: a retraining program in which there is a new field of maintaining robots, to replace the jobs that are lost. Before the conference, I've emailed her personally to ask how she'd respond to people who are worried about some of these things.

"First, science fiction is fiction," she writes. "Second, our customers look at our robots the same way they look at a forklift or conveyor systems … another tool to increase warehouse productivity."

*

Almost all the engineers and professionals highlighted above are women, which is deliberate on my part but perhaps not representative of the conference. Collision seems to be struggling with Silicon Valley's well-documented diversity problem. Though stats released by the conference describe 42 percent of attendees as female (part of a "Women in Tech" program), on the floor there are easily three men for every woman, and the crowd skews heavily white.

I do speak with Janine Mahoney, an Australian woman in town to present technological solutions for domestic violence victims to the Family Justice Center. (Some ideas: devices that send a priority alert to the police department, data profiling of abusers to help criminal justice teams identify patterns). And also I meet Shelby Alissa Santiago, a young woman walking the floor in stilettos, a tiara and a "Miss Louisiana" sash.

As Louisiana's representative for the USA Ambassador Pageant, Santiago showed up to Collision to promote her personal cause — engaging girls in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. She has high hopes for technology's enhancement of existing fields, such as agriculture.

"Technology, in short, is the future," she tells me. "You can adapt or you're going to be left behind."

*

To offer me perspective on everything I've seen, I've arranged an interview at the conference with Mike Massimino. Massimino, who teaches in the engineering department at Columbia University, is one of those superhumanly impressive people whose resume includes his time as a NASA astronaut. Who better to provide insight as to how technology might change our lives that someone who has used it to go to space?

When we talk about the future, I'm surprised to find that he's bullish on space tourism — and potentially even space settlements, on the moon, Mars or an asteroid. He points out the private companies who are developing space programs, often in tandem with NASA, and that scientists are working on the many challenges associated with traveling and even living in space.

“If we’re really going to travel in the future from place to place in space, the distances are so large that you’re going to need to go a lot faster than we’re able to go now. ... I traveled at 17,500 miles an hour, [if] you think that’s fast, we need to go a lot faster than
that," he explains. Apparently there also are problems with communication; astronauts can use the internet in space now, but it will need to be faster to communicate over large distances. (Massimino was the first person to tweet from space.) We'll also need to protect ourselves from radiation once we leave Earth's magnetic field behind.

Massimino thinks this might play out the way explorers first took on the poles, when small expeditions eventually were followed by research settlements. But he definitely thinks we'll see more widespread space travel in our lifetimes.

Perhaps fitting for someone who thinks we'll be able to get off this planet, he feels hopeful — perhaps more hopeful than I am — about what the future will look like.

"One thing that we’re getting better at is giving people opportunity," he says, citing the rise of women engineers at the universities he attended. "It wasn’t always like that. There were a lot of barriers to people being included.

"I think there’s a lot of really bright, wonderful young people coming up behind us, they’re more accepting, they're more open to ideas … I think there’s great hope here for the future. I hope I’m around to see a lot of it."


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