Are machines going to save or destroy us? It’s a question we’ve been grappling with since we first put 1s and 0s together to create computer code. And it feels like we’re no closer to answering it; machines are growing smarter by the day, and while they’re taking us to places we’ve never imagined, we seem to be losing turf as the supreme thinking and feeling being.
In the second session of TED2017, seven speakers (and one robot) showed us visions of the future — from robots that can pass college entrance exams and learn human values to the future of personal mobility (hint: we’re going to fly).
Below, recaps of the talks from Session 2, in chronological order.
Boston Dynamics founder Marc Raibert, foreground, and Seth Davis put the oddly adorable SpotMini through its paces at TED2017, April 25, 2017, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman / TED
A vision of the robots that may replace you. SpotMini, an electronic quadruped robot that looks like a cross between a large dog and a small giraffe, trots onstage, circles the red carpet and acknowledges the audience before taking its place alongside Marc Raibert, founder of Boston Dynamics — the company responsible for some of the coolest (and, perhaps, most terrifying) robots on the planet. Boston Dynamics’s basic design principles, Raibert says, are aimed at achieving three things: balance, dexterity and perception. He takes us through a status report of robots he’s developing towards these ends, showing video featuring BigDog, a cheetah-like robot that runs with a galloping gait; AlphaDog, a massive robot that can negotiate through 10 inches of snow; Spot, a bigger version of SpotMini that can open complex doors; Atlas, a humanoid robot that walks upright on two legs and uses its hands to handle packages; and Handle, which has wheels for feet and can lift 100-pound packages and jump on top of tables with ease. With that, SpotMini wakes up, under the direction of Boston Dynamics’s Seth Davis, and to the delight of the TED crowd shows off its omnidirectional gait, moving sideways, running in place and hopping back and forth from side to side. Raibert shows onscreen how SpotMini creates a dynamic map of the world around it, allowing it to navigate an obstacle course set up on stage with ease — and even delivering a soda to Raibert on command.
Noriko Arai wondered if an AI could pass the entrance exam at a top university. She shares her prediction at TED2017, April 25, 2017, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED
A robot that can pass a college entrance exam — and what that means. Noriko Arai wondered: could an AI pass the entrance exam for the University of Tokyo? The university, known as Todai, is Japan’s Harvard — and the Todai Robot Project aimed to get an AI in by 2020. Why? “To study the performance of AI in comparison to humans,” says Arai, “on skills believed to be done only by humans with education.” Last year, the Todai Robot placed in the top 1 percent of students on math, and we watch as it starts composing a 600-character essay on maritime trade in the 17th century. Arai turns her attention to how the robot did this: it broke down math problems into machine-readable formulas, multiple-choice questions into Googlable factoids and essay writing into a task of copying and combining. “None of the AIs today, including Watson, Siri and Todai Robot,