Rodney Brooks on the present and future of robotics & AI

Rodney Brooks is the father of the Roomba, the founder of iRobot, and the creator of both the Baxter and Sawyer product lines from Rethink Robotics. He’s arguably the world’s most accomplished roboticist. And if he’s not – and I personally can’t think of who could challenge him for that crown – he’s definitely the top roboticist to be profiled in an Errol Morris documentary (1997’s Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control).

When Rodney left Australia for the region that would later become known as Silicon Valley, there were quite literally 3 mobile robots of consequence on the entire planet. Years later, he founded a company which has since brought tens of millions of these critters into the world. His products have saved countless lives. They have also liberated thousands of acres of carpeting from dust crumbs, dog hair, and other detritus.

Amazingly, Rodney’s tenure and credentials are every bit as significant in a second high tech field: artificial intelligence. He founded the leading developer of AI coding tools throughout the 80s and early 90s. And somehow he squeezed his robotics and AI entrepreneurship in while building a storied academic career – largely at MIT, where he spent a decade running one of the two largest and most prominent AI centers in the world.

Rodney is my guest in this week's edition of the After on Podcast. You can listen to our interview by searching “After On” in your favorite podcast app, or by clicking right here:

As you’ll hear, Rodney diverges from fashionable narratives on several tech-related topics. Read the rest

Space archaeology: A conversation with TED Prize winner Sarah Parcak

The After On podcast a series of unhurried conversations with thinkers, founders, and scientists. It began as a complement to the novel After On, in that its first eight episodes explore science, tech, and social issues featured in the storyline. But there is no need to read After On before listening to any of these episodes. You can subscribe to the podcast within any podcast app. Simply use your app's search function (type in "After On") to find and subscribe. Or, to subscribe via your computer click here, then click the blue “View on iTunes” button (left side of the page under the After On image), then click “Subscribe” (similar location) in the iTunes window. Or simply follow the feed http://afteron.libsyn.com/rss

Ask any archaeologist, and you'll learn that the tools of their trade are simple and universal: a pointing trowel for excavation; a brush for removing dust from finds; side arms to fend off Nazi grave robbers; and a large constellation of satellites.

That last item joined the toolkit back in 1984, when NASA's Tom Sever (who is not a Hall of Fame pitcher, and must be sick of being asked if he is) convened an archaeological summit to offer up images and other goodies from his agency. And with that, the field of space archaeology was.

In roughly the same year, the Tooth Fairy delivered a children's book about ancient Egypt to one Sarah Parcak, age 5, of Bangor Maine. An early childhood obsession with pharaonic culture is common amongst future Egyptologists, and Sarah's began then. Read the rest

Chris Anderson: Drone mogul and former bass player for REM (no, not *that* REM).

(Photo: Joi Ito, CC-BY)

He’s not the only major figure in the world of tech and ideas who goes by Chris Anderson. His namesake runs the TED conference - whereas the Chris Anderson of this article was Editor-in-Chief of Wired for twelve years. During that stint, he co-founded a company that helped launch the consumer drone industry, which he now runs (the company - not the industry).

There are those who think these guys are one solitary, mega overachiever, but no. They could settle who has rights to the name through some kind of brainy public smackdown - the nerd equivalent of a battle of the bands, say. But not a chance. This Chris Anderson has been through that once already. With his band. They were called REM.

No - not that REM. That REM clobbered Team Chris in musical combat back in 1991 (at the storied 9:30 club in Washington), winning rights to the name. Chris’s band then took Mike Mills’ suggestion that they rebrand as Egoslavia – a clever-ish name back when Yugoslavia wasn’t just a fading memory and a handful of spinoffs.

Chris and I cover this, plus the story of his impressively misspent youth in an hour-plus interview you can listen to right here (or by typing the name of the podcast series – “After On” – into the search bar of your favorite podcast app):

But we mainly talk about drones, his company (3D Robotics, or 3DR), and how he launched and grew it to millions in revenues in partnership with a Tijuana teen, while winning awards for running the world’s most influential tech magazine as a day job. Read the rest

What are the real risks we humans could face from a rogue AI superintelligence?

To hear a wide-ranging interview about the real-world risks we humans could face from a rogue superintelligence, hit play, below. My guest is author and documentary filmmaker James Barrat. Barrat’s 2014 book Our Final Invention was the gateway drug that ushered me into the narcotic realm of contemplating super AI risk. So it’s on first-hand authority that I urge you to jump in – the water’s great!

This is the seventh episode of my podcast series (co-hosted by Tom Merritt), which launched here on Boing Boing last month. The series goes deep into the science, tech, and sociological issues explored in my novel After On – but no familiarity with the novel is necessary to listen to it.

The danger of artificial consciousness has a noble pedigree in science fiction. In most minds, its wellspring is 2001: A Space Odyssey, which features HAL 9000 – an onboard computer that decides to kill off its passengers before they can disconnect it (spoiler: HAL’s rookie season ends – rather abruptly – with a 1-1 record).

James’s interest in this subject was piqued when he interviewed 2001’s author, Arthur C. Clarke, back in the pertinent year of 2001. Clarke’s concerns about superintelligence went beyond the confines of fiction. And he expressed them cogently enough to freak James out to this day.

Among James’s worries is that Hollywood has inoculated many of us from taking super AIs seriously by depicting them so preposterously. “Imagine if the Centers for Disease Control issued a serious warning about vampires,” he notes. Read the rest

How Sam Harris Became Sam Harris (plus, many a thought on terrorism and AI risk)

Hit play, below, to hear an unhurried interview with author, podcaster and neuroscientist Sam Harris. Few have denounced President Trump at greater length, or on more certain terms than Sam. He is equally denunciatory about political correctness – which, he believes, threatens free speech – and anyone he deems soft on Islamic terrorism. All this triggers gales of outrage on the left and the right alike – making Sam, in his way, a unifying figure. I should note his fans also span the spectrum.

This is the sixth episode of my podcast series (co-hosted by Tom Merritt), which launched here on Boing Boing last month. The series goes deep into the science, tech, and sociological issues explored in my novel After On – but no familiarity with the novel is necessary to listen to it.

In our interview, Sam and I have a deep discussion about nihilistic terrorism – a major preoccupation of his, and of my novel. We also spend about an hour discussing the journey that shaped his unusual worldview.

Oddly for a strong student at a top school (Stanford), Sam dropped out of college for ten years. Oddly for a 10-year dropout, he suddenly returned to finish his philosophy degree with honors. Oddly for a philosophy major, he then got a Ph.D. in neuroscience, while – flat-out bizarrely for a neuroscientist – writing a bestselling geopolitical book (The End of Faith). Yes, drugs were involved. As were entire years spent in silent meditation, plus boundless hours steeping in spirituality. Read the rest

The promise and peril of synthetic biology in 78 minutes

Below you’ll find an unhurried interview with Autodesk Distinguished Researcher Andy Hessel. Andy is a prime instigator behind GP-Write – which is, on some levels, heir to the Human Genome Project – and a co-founder of Humane Genomics, which is developing virus-based therapies for cancer.

It’s the fourth episode of my podcast series (co-hosted by Tom Merritt), which launched here on Boing Boing three weeks ago. The series goes deep into the science, tech, and sociological issues explored in my present-day science fiction novel After On – but no familiarity with the novel is necessary to listen to it.

The upside and the downside of synthetic biology are vast and Andy is deeply versed in both. He co-wrote a chilling fictive scenario about a bioterror plot for the Atlantic – but he tends toward relentless optimism when contemplating synthetic biology’s future.

Synbio newbies should find our wide-ranging discussion to be a robust introduction to the field. But Andy’s sophisticated commentary will give expert listeners plenty to chew on. After considering the astounding decades-long drop in the cost of reading DNA (which makes price/performance gains in computing look trivial), we discuss the sudden and accelerating plunge in the cost of writing DNA that does not exist in nature.

Andy explains how this is enabling the explosive rise of a market for metabolic circuits – clusters of genes designed to churn out industrial enzymes and other chemically complex output. This is a giant step down a path toward bioprinting an immense array of tissues (new skin for burn victims, cow-free steaks that could fool a cattleman, and much more), and then onward to boundless breeds of wholly synthetic critters. Read the rest