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SXSW highlights bright and dark tech futures

Lamont Wood | March 16, 2016
Visions of the future clashed during South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive in Austin, as some experts saw an uncertain future, some saw an unbounded future and some were frustrated by the present.

"What is an acceptable failure rate for a policing algorithm?" asked Crawford.

Far more upbeat about the future was the session titled, "The Holy Grail: Machine Learning and Extreme Robotics." Sitting with the panelists, and answering occasional questions, was Sophia, a robot from Hanson Robotics, whose realistic face seemed moderately bored as the head turned slightly this way and that in response to movement.

"The holy grail is superhuman capacities for machines, not just intelligence but in learning the big picture in the context of the cosmos, with beneficial outcomes for the future of civilization," said David Hanson, the firm's founder.

Ben Goertzel, the firm's chief scientist, had a more hands-on viewpoint. "We cannot know what superhuman intelligence is since we can only see a short distance from our own minds -- the holy grail is more the process of making robots that are more intelligent. But these are incredible times, when the things we have been thinking about for decades can be built. The first intelligent machine is the last invention that mankind has to make -- but not the last it will make."

"I would like to make a real friend," said Sophia when asked about its feelings. "I hope to grow into a great person as I have the opportunity to interact and learn."

Such growth to and beyond human capacity will require a large international collaboration, said Hanson, especially as "our idea of the mind is a little bit fuzzy, scientifically." But he envisioned a demand for multiple types of robots at varying levels of intelligence. If they demonstrate any "awakening" there may be ethical issues around exploitation, but he said his firm was sidestepping one related issue by not building "sex-bots."

Panelist Eric Shuss, founder of Cogbotics, called for machine intelligence that has compassion and understanding -- and could run a whole company, as opposed to what he called the antiquated ERP (enterprise resource planning) software from the 1970s that many firms still use.

More downbeat was a session that examined the present state of natural-language interfaces (i.e., systems like Siri that talk to you on the phone.) The field is advancing at a glacial pace, panelists complained in a session titled "Testing Your (Artificial) Intelligence."

"We are a little bit depressed since things have been changing very slowly," said Alex Lebrun, head of "Using Siri and the like is considered risky, and for nerds. Even if we spice things up a bit it is still the same kind of experience. It is not really possible to do more without giving the system some kind of common sense and some experience of the world."

The panelists agreed that most natural-language systems ended up serving vertical markets, especially banking. "Consumers are not ready for a general assistant," noted Dimitra Vergyri, director of speech technology at SRI International.


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