Three possibilities await humankind's future relationship with robots. We could become their pets, waiting on our robots to take us for walks and feed us. We may merge with them, becoming cyborgs. Or we could become obsolete, our mortal bodies and concerns falling to evolution, replaced by the machines we created.
A final fourth scenario: We are living in a simulation already.
Sabri Sansoy presented these scenarios in a cheerful, matter-of-fact manner toward the end of an interview I conducted with him in his garage, after showing me a variety of robots and programs he’s created as a roboticist and AI specialist. CEO and founder of artificial intelligence company Orchanic (orchanic.com), Sansoy recently moved to Santa Fe and has launched a meetup group in town for others either working or just interested in the growing field.
Sansoy grew up in Las Vegas, New Mexico, going on to study astrophysics at the University of New Mexico, followed by aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His father wanted him to be a doctor; Sansoy wanted to be a space shuttle astronaut, so he joined the Air Force. Then in the late 1990s, the internet came along, shifting Sansoy's career trajectory. He headed technology for a former dot-com called Icebox.
An advertising project with Volkswagen, he says, really helped launch his career as a roboticist. For that project, VW RRR, Sansoy trained a deep learning system to identify human vocalized sounds of cars—essentially creating a machine that can learn by example. He also has worked extensively in the film industry. For example, he built sentry paintball gun robots use deep learning to recognize human targets and to fire paintballs at them for Ridley Scott's Scott Free Productions (scottfree.com).
Other notable projects include creating a "cognitive dress" that changed colors in response to public tweets, analyzing the emotive tones of the language used, created for IBM Watson and fashion company Marchesa and worn at the 2016 Met Gala.
Between Hollywood and Santa Fe, Sansoy lived in the farm country between Los Angeles and San Francisco, thinking and working on projects that could incorporate robotics and deep learning into agriculture, both for manual labor (picking oranges) and for crop disease detection. Other environmental/robotics projects include using robotics for trash collection; Sansoy says a beer company (he's not allowed to identify which) is interested in a crab robot that could identify beer-related trash on beaches and clean it up.
Sansoy also showed me a specialty robot he is working on for a New York client that sweeps floors, as well as requests he's had for robots that sort and fold laundry (and, yes, my little lazy heart soared at the thought; I deserve to become a robot's pet).
Despite the sophistication Sansoy's work represents, he says the public should understand that the field of artificial intelligence remains relatively incipient. Fears of a world run by robots, in other words, are over-wrought. Deep learning and other aspects of machine learning, the area in which he works, involves (broadly and simply) training machines to truly understand human behavior and language. And in that arena, "We're nowhere near a true machine that can act like a human," he says.
Nonetheless, the field moves quickly. Sansoy describes today's artificial intelligence as the "fourth industrial revolution," in which "every six months, the technology evolves." In some fields, this rapidity is creating important advancements. In health care, for example, AI diagnostic tools are swiftly improving disease diagnostics.
While much of Sansoy's work involves clients all over the world, upon moving to Santa Fe he immediately began reaching out to area organizations, and says he is still thinking about possible projects that would be a good fit. I suggested (without prompting and a wistful tone) a squad of robots to clean trash in the arroyos, and my belief that Santa Fe would be an ideal choice for self-driving cars, particularly if accompanied by laws that required everyone to use them. Sansoy also is deeply interested in education; when we spoke, he had just returned from judging a robotics competition at the Global Conference on Educational Robotics. His company, in addition to providing robotics and deep learning services, also offers educational workshops.
As I photographed Sansoy and various machines, I asked him which, of the four scenarios mentioned for our future with robots, he thought was most likely. "I think the cyborg," he said, "What they're calling the singularity." I noticed, as Sansoy spoke, the message on his sleeping computer: "The machines aren't coming, they're already here."
Hey, Siri! Sorry for yelling at you yesterday.
The Santa Fe Artificial Intelligence / Robotics group is open to all; Orchanic owner Sabri Sansoy says the plan is to use the group for discussions and workshops about the various areas of artificial intelligence. Join at meetup.com/Santa-Fe-Artificial-Intelligence-Robotics-Meetup