For decades robots have won the affection of humans in pop culture — whether it was R2-D2 in “Star Wars” or Rosie the Robot in “The Jetsons.” But as popular as these machines have been on screen, we haven’t seen similar robots enter our everyday lives.
Now that appears on the verge of changing as the technology sector increasingly invests in robotics. Funding to private robotics companies doubled in 2015 to reach a record high of $587 million, according to CB Insights.
And robots were the dominant theme at a conference that Amazon.com held earlier this week to encourage inspiration and creativity in tech’s hottest fields. In one demonstration, Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos was helped onstage in a blue robotic suit somewhat reminiscent of Iron Man, but which simulated the perils of old age. A person wearing the Genworth R70i still can control their movements, but is greatly hampered by the constraints of the 40-pound suit.
Applied Minds co-chairman Bran Ferren, who led the demo, drew laughter from the crowd as he adjusted the leg and arm braces and headset that Bezos wore to simulate maladies ranging from eyesight and hearing disorders to walking with an injured hip. Much discussion at the four-day event in Palm Springs, Calif., focused on the potential of robots to care for the elderly, educate people of all ages and help society function more efficiently.
“Things like machine intelligence and robotics are going to affect everything,” Bezos later told his roughly 120 guests after an outdoor dinner. “This has been science fiction for 50 years or more. I believe it’s on the precipice of happening.”
Dan Brown, author of “The Da Vinci Code,” drew a near standing ovation at the event for a speech in which he argued that the timeline for human development is compressing because of technology’s rapid developments in areas such as robotics. He predicted that technology would have a larger effect on human spirituality than even religion, and he wondered whether humans would be mature enough to handle their new tools.
Although Amazon is best known for its online retail operations, the conference’s focus — which also included machine learning, home automation and space — was a reminder of the broad enthusiasm and interest of the tech world for the potential of robotics.
Amazon is “an Internet company, but also a ‘real world’ company with immediate uses for robots, in its warehouses, in home delivery, etc.,” said Pedro Domingos, a professor of computer science at the University of Washington, who was in attendance. “I wouldn’t be surprised if before long the Echo sprouts limbs and turns into a home robot.”
Attendees found in their rooms Amazon Echo, the stand-alone speaker capable of answering questions when being addressed from a person on the other side of the room. The audio technology that powers Echo, and the platform Amazon is building to further Echo’s abilities, was a common conversation topic among guests.
The conference, dubbed MARS, included a range of demonstrations, from drones to four-legged robots, machines capable of swimming and 3-D-printed parts. The hotel and surrounding grounds morphed into something of a technologist’s playground, with some tables built on the foundation of the robots Amazon uses to move goods to its fulfillment centers, and walkways lined with lights that twinkled in coordination with nearby sounds and movements.
Attendees included Fortune 500 executives, start-up founders, academics, designers, authors and a few journalists. Some speakers shared details on early-stage projects that haven’t been shared publicly. Amazon said it will host a second MARS event next year.
“There were outstanding technical sessions and demos, followed by small group activities which allowed participants to bond socially, easing the transition from colleague to potential collaborator,” said Neil Lawrence, a professor of machine learning at the University of Sheffield in Britain. The MARS “branding presents for me the relaxed interchange of ideas with some of the brightest minds of our generation.”
Disclosure: Bezos owns The Washington Post.