Honda's humanoid robot ASIMO conducting an orchestra in 2008. Photo by Vanillase via Wikimedia Commons
Honda’s humanoid robot ASIMO conducting an orchestra in 2008. Photo by Vanillase via Wikimedia Commons

By Leonard Novarro

What will a world of robots be like?

More importantly, what will we be like?

Those questions, and many others, stirred a thought-provoking discussion during a packed audience of The Indus Entrepreneurs last week at Janssen Research and Development in La Jolla as a panel of entrepreneurs explored topics related to the future development and growth of artificial intelligence systems and their impact on consumers and labor.

Who can think of robots, or artificial intelligence, without recalling the computer “Hal” in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”? And, indeed, moderator Sandeep Pandya opened the session with a scene from the film in which actor Keir Dullea tries to reason with the computer-turned-monster.

In a sense, that scene crystallized the main theme behind the TiE event — exactly what will be our role in this brave new world — if it should ever come about?

Olin Hyde
Olin Hyde

To some degree, the world of artificial intelligence is already here, and has been for some time. As panelist Thomas Bewley, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UC San Diego, pointed out, computers already map hurricanes, explore gas pockets and fight forest fires. But they also get in the way, as fellow panelist Olin Hyde, CEO and founder of Englue, pointed out. The presence of drones during recent serious brush fires in the state hampered fire-fighting methods and has the state Legislature in Sacramento considering ways to control such activity. In addition, there is the issue of privacy. In San Diego recently, a man on the beach who swatted and damaged a drone he thought was spying on his female friend was accused of damaging private property.

Computer programs, as Olin pointed out, have already taken over basic legal procedures such as discovery, the pre-trial procedure in which one side can obtain evidence from the opposite side of a civil or criminal case. This form of “electronic discovery” eliminates “the need for a first year legal assistant,” said Olin.

But Dr. Eugene Izhikevich, co-founder of Brain Corp., said we are a long way off from the world of the “Terminator” and other science-fiction. In fact, the panel conceded, Hollywood actually does a disservice in the way it depicts the future of robotry.

“We still don’t have a robot who can open a door,” he said, to the amusement of the audience. Simple functions, not much less controlling a spaceship, “are a far cry from the Terminator,” he added.

The evening’s program began with this question: “What world problems can be solved by robots or the use of robots.” However, most of the panel agreed that without control or protocols, artificial intelligence, rather than solving problems, could BE the problem. Cheaper overseas labor already has decimated middle-class jobs here. Now, even those jobs are threatened by the use of robotics. Jobs will continue to suffer “the biggest upset,” said Izhikevich. “We should be asking ‘What can we do to empower people to love empowering and useful lives?’”

Panelists conceded that the state of the economy will determine how rapidly the technology develops.

Historically, human displacement has always been part of technological advance, as far back as the invention of the spinning wheel in the 13th century and long before the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s. However, added Olin:  “Do we allow things to get to the point of the French Revolution,” a society divided by the haves and have-nots? “If we replace humans, where do humans go?” he added.

Brewley suggested that the rise of robots could actually lead to more jobs — in essence, servicing and taking care of robots.

Now, that’s pure Hollywood.

Leonard Novarro is a journalist and co-founder of Asia Media America and the Asian Heritage Society in San Diego.