LAS VEGAS — At Amazon’s inaugural re:MARS conference, an autonomous mower on display cut straight lines in grass as it scooted back and forth across an artificial lawn on Thursday. The gray, cylindrical Terra robot by iRobot, maker of the Roomba vacuum, was one of many automated machines demonstrated at the event at Las Vegas’s Aria resort. Another robot called Temi blasted pop music while, like a faithful pet, it followed a person around the spacious convention center.
Thousands of tech fans descended on the Mojave desert for the conference, a public offshoot of Amazon Chairman Jeff Bezos’ previous invitation-only MARS conferences (the acronym stands for “Machine Learning, Robotics, Automation and Space”).
It resembled a tech summer camp, replete with offerings of cutting-edge technology demos, talks and social events.
In dozens of breakout sessions, business leaders discussed the future of jobs, drones, and tools powered by Amazon’s cloud platform in fields ranging from space exploration to health care.
The most sensational news came on Wednesday, when Jeff Wilke, chief of Amazon’s global consumer business, revealed the company’s plan to test artificially intelligent drones delivering household goods within the next few months.
At a press lunch following the announcement, Wilke expressed optimism about the future of work amid advancements in automation like the forthcoming drones. The company says it’s deployed 200,000 robots in distribution centers globally, and recently added two new types to the fleet.
“I think we will find ways to leverage human creativity and intelligence for a very long time,” Wilke said. “The trick is for us to educate ourselves so that we can adapt when the key piece of work that we happen to be doing is better done by somebody or something else.”
Other presenters explored the application of automation and artificial intelligence to areas more somber than shopping. Naveen Rao, general manager of Intel’s Artificial Intelligence Products Group, championed achievements in machine learning, such as the development of neural prosthetics for people with disabilities.
“The conjunction of robotics, AI and biology … is changing what it means to be human,” Rao said. A moment later, he warned that developers must be “thoughtful” and “transparent,” to honor consumers’ privacy.
Several of the breakout sessions were hosted by companies that use Amazon’s cloud computing platform, Amazon Web Services, to power technology that assists vulnerable communities. Over the past five years, Los Angeles-based nonprofit Thorn has used Amazon’s artificial intelligence services to identify victims of child sex trafficking in advertisements and videos posted online.
The advent of the internet expanded the buying and selling of children for sex, said Thorn CEO Julie Cordua. The ages of such children are usually inflated in the online market, which makes it difficult for law enforcement to identify them in the hundreds of thousands of escort ads.
With time being of the essence to rescue such children, said Cordua, the question was, “How do we get to these kids faster?”
So Thorn created software called Spotlight, which holds its data on Amazon’s S3 storage service. The organization uses Amazon Rekognition, the facial and text recognition system, to match photos of children in sex ads to posters of missing children. Cordua says Spotlight is helping law enforcement identify eight missing children in U.S. sex ads everyday. Over the past few years, Spotlight has identified 9,000 children and 10,000 traffickers in the U.S. and Canada, said Cordua.
Another featured company, Netherlands-based Robot Care Systems created an automated walking aid with the use of Amazon Web Services’ Robomaker, a cloud robotics service that helps developers create intelligent robot applications. Using its own software and Amazon’s robotics service, Robot Care Systems created the robot Lea, which helps patients with Parkinson’s, the elderly and people with disabilities walk.
Bezos talked about robots and space exploration, among other topics, at a fireside chat on Thursday morning. The Amazon CEO predicted that robots will have greater dexterity within the next 10 years.
He also discussed the motivation behind his other project, Blue Origin, the Kent-based rocket company he founded in 2000. “The reason we go to space, in my view, is to save the Earth,” said Bezos. The Moon’s proximity to the Earth and its abundance of resources will allow heavy industry to be moved to the nearby orbiting sphere, while “Earth will be zoned residential.”
Not all of the attendees were satisfied with Bezos’ vision. The tech mogul’s chat was briefly disrupted by an activist who ran on stage to protest conditions at an Amazon chicken supplier. “You’re the richest man in the world. You can save the animals,” protester Priya Sawhney pleaded to Bezos as security dragged her off stage.
Bezos quickly shrugged off the encounter. “Now, where were we?” he asked the interviewer before returning to the discussion on space exploration.
The conference concluded on Friday with a smattering of breakout sessions, including one on making artificial intelligence more fair and inclusive. Amazon has come under fire for the perpetuation of biases in its facial recognition software, which some researchers found has higher error rates when identifying images with darker skinned females in comparison to lighter skinned males. Other studies have demonstrated that AI systems can suggest gender-biased language in Gmail emails, and produce racially biased pretrial risk assessment tools.
“Algorithms are not moral agents, but ultimately the humans who design and deploy them are several degrees separated from the algorithm’s decision making, so they may inadvertently introduce bias,” said Aaron Roth, a computer science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, according to the Amazon blog‘s report of his talk.