In which we discuss our new robot friends

By Richard Nieva , written on December 7, 2012

From The News Desk

Siri is famously the first Apple product to ever be released in beta. Before that, they just didn’t do beta in Cupertino. Announced just a day before Steve Jobs died, some thought it was the first sign of Apple’s decline without the company’s notoriously perfectionist leader at the day-to-day helm.

But think about it. Siri is an artificially intelligent robot servant that you order around with your voice. And it listens. Of course it’s beta!

Voice recognition is far, far from perfect, but it’s a great achievement -- by way more people than work at Apple -- even if we might only recognize it during those rare wonder-and-awe moments that come when you stop and really think about the progress of technology. So of course it’s not perfect, or even polished enough for the market. The release of a non-beta version of a product like that would be a profound moment in the history of technology. It might also be a little scary.

The future of artificial intelligence was one topic of discussion during a workshop at the Singularity University Executive Program, a weeklong conference held at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. The attendees, mostly CEOs and high-level execs at tech companies from around the world, split into groups to defend or bash AI in different futuristic scenarios.

One group discussed a future of soaring unemployment with robots taking all the jobs. No surprise, the crowd was in favor of jobs before bots. Another group played the role of a big company that built robots that could be made to murder for hire. That group, amusingly enough, issued an almost boilerplate apology for its robots.  “This is a part of the process. You can’t throw away the baby with the bathwater,” the group said.

It was a thoughtful discussion, and served to guage the mentality of some of the industry’s brightest entrepreneurs.

For the record, the discussion’s moderator, Neil Jacobstein, co-chair of the AI and robotics track at Singular University, is all for Siri and Google Now, an app that pushes content to your phone without you even searching for it, based on data culled from your Web activity.

Grokr is a product similar to Google Now that is launching soon. I asked Grokr's CEO Srivats Sampath if he was worried people might be creeped out by artificial intelligence. “Yes,” he said, sincerely. “We have to be careful.” And he insists he is.

But it’s not doom and gloom, by any means. AI is an exciting, if weighty, prospect that humanity has been grappling with for decades. Jacobstein was quick to point out that we are nowhere near the level of sophistication for any of those horror stories, but it was important to have that dialogue. “We should not underestimate how much work needs to go into building those systems,” said Jacobstein.

He adds: “This needs a nuanced discussion, and not just a shoot from the hip attitude.”