The future of the world—and the world of work—was on display at TEDxLugano in Switzerland earlier in September. With a theme of “Professions of the Future” the topics of the independently-organized TED event ranged from the future of robots in harsh environments to the practical realities of an AI-first world.
Beyond Artificial Intelligence
The event was a first-hand look at some of the future implications of artificial intelligence and robotics from some of the leading thinkers in that field. But going by each presentation, it added context and nuance to a topic area that often have people jumping to worst case scenarios, reminiscent of a high-budget science fiction movie.
Indeed, when it comes to AI, our culture seems to be in need of a reality check. AI isn’t necessarily the technological advancement that’s going to save the world from all its ills, but neither is it certain to be the “end of the human race” as Stephen Hawking has famously said. Examining some of the main topics that came out of this Tedx event can help give a more granular and realistic vision of the stunning developments in this field.
Robot Intuition May Save Lives
Anna Valente, a professor in automation, robotics and machines gave a stunning talk on intuitive robotics, which have the potential to aid human endeavors in myriad ways. Often, when we think about the growing sophistication of the robotics field, people get panicky and fear the worst: that robots will become smarter than humans and surpass our capacities. However, there is a massive middle ground between where we are now and robots actually taking over the world. Take, for example, the idea that Valente presented: using intuitive robots in harsh environments where human life may be at risk. Creating robots that could intervene in natural disasters or conflict zones without putting human life at risk would be a helpful deployment of this field. As Valente put it, intuitive robotics can help humans “transcend the danger and amplify our ultimate senses” and unlock profound possibilities that both enhance human capabilities and save human lives.
Life After Death
Attendees were excited to hear from Henrique Jorge, a software developer and entrepreneur who is best-known for founding the social network ETER9, which uses AI as part of its core. Currently in beta, ETER9 learns the habits of its users through observing their social media posting patterns. Then, when users aren’t online, AI will continue to post in the user’s absence, amounting to a so-called Counterpart, which is a “virtual self that will stay in the system and interact with the world just like you would if you were present.” The more a user interacts on the network by posting and commenting, the more this Counterpart learns. While this might sound disconcerting to some, the goal is not supplanting human communication for AI. Rather, in his talk Jorge proposed an exciting future where AI could be used to keep the presence of individuals alive long after they’ve passed away. This concept of “digital immortality” through the merger of machines and human consciousness is just one of the exciting and nuanced ways that AI is being used.
Another topic presented was by robotics engineer Wyatt Newman. Newman explained how “robotics, automation and Artificial Intelligence are continuously transforming the working world” which means that the skills and jobs we will need people to be adept at in the future could look very different from what we need today. While much has been written about this hypothesis in the media, most of it fuels fear of the future, not fostering an attitude of possibility. As Newman said in his talk: “The robot revolution is here, but is not to be feared. It is our hope for the future.” Through tactics like smart automation, finding new and more nuanced roles for human workers and using robotics for tasks that humans can’t fulfill, we can find a space for robots in the future world of work that does not eclipse our human world.
A highlight speaker of the event was computer scientist and inventor Jamil El-Imad, whose interests span in Virtual Reality (VR), brain signal analysis, Big Data and Brain Computer Interfaces (BCI). At the event, he debuted his “dream machine” which helps users harness mindfulness to reach peak human experience. As El-Imad intoned in his talk: “Imagine you are in Zurich, your friends are in different countries and you all wish to go to a motor racing or football event together …. technology is changing our live experience” in ways we couldn’t have imagined just years ago.
The work of the TEDxLugano speakers showcases the ways that the fields of AI and robots are not things to be feared, but rather celebrated and explored, as the human race progresses and evolves into the future.
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If you haven’t read the book “Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions” by a Square, you have missed out on a geometric fantasy. Here, in Flatland, a world of two dimensions, men are polygons and women are lines. When one day the art of painting is discovered and what it does to the notion of fixed shapes, social boundaries were being pushed. The narrator then goes on a journey to line land, a one dimensional world and then one day gets visited by a sphere in his Flatland home. The sphere allows the square to visit three dimensional space where he experiences depth for the first time… The realization of multi dimensionality was born.
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Our lives are almost unthinkable without technology. We have integrated chips, processors and all that comes with it into our lives. How many of us still do mental arithmetic? And now, the rise of artificial intelligence is opening the doors to extreme learning, medical advances and perhaps even immortality (yes, I am thinking of ETER9). So what happens when we try to fuse a human aspect with technology, in one case quite literally?