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Forget Hollywood's AI promises, results are what inspires next-gen tech pros

During the “Lunch with Robots” panel at HubWeek 2018, host Jim Tracy asked a question that reflected a major theme of the weeklong event: How is the workforce going to change in the next 20 years, and how can we help people transition?

Panelist Colin Angle, founder and CEO of iRobot, said it will be important for companies to develop and implement useful technology while still prioritizing human workers and their needs in order to recruit and retain talent.

For the audience of mostly grades K-12 students who were invited to attend the lunchtime session at HubWeek 2018, Angle had encouraging news:  For every Massachusetts college graduate who gets a degree in IT and computer science, there are more than 15 potential jobs waiting for them.

Good-paying, stable jobs at that.

“iRobot [has] definitely seen some significant transformation. The job hopping mentality is giving way to desire for security, to understanding the loyalty, values, mission of [a company],” Angle said.

Kathleen Kennedy, Director of Special Projects at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, took a different approach to answering Tracy’s question about the rapidly changing, tech-driven future workforce.

“Who is afraid of robots taking over?” Kennedy asked. A sea of tiny hands were raised in the audience.

“Who works with robots? Who has ever seen or used one?” she followed.

Two adult hands went up — the crowd laughed at the discrepancy.

“We aren’t 20 years away from total AI disruption,” Angle said.

Tempering expectations

Though there isn’t an imminent takeover on the horizon, the next generation should prepare to be working alongside AI technology in the future.

Angle compared technology such as Rosie the Robot from the 1980’s comedy The Jetsons to the Roomba. The technology is similar– a bot that is programmed to clean and vacuum autonomously, but of course Roomba doesn’t have any of the dazzle and sass that came with the cartoon’s talking, humanoid maid.

Angle emphasized that we must consider the intended scope of technology like the Roomba when judging its success and failure, and when we think about how tech will change the workplace.

In 1980, robots completing concrete tasks were considered to be the future. But even after the completion and the success of the Roomba, the general public — conditioned by Hollywood versions of task-completing robots — is underwhelmed by today’s robot tech in the home, and likely will continue to feel that way.

Angle noted that although minor algorithms can be programmed in a shiny bot, a Rosie the robot maid remains many years out of reach.

Hollywood helped contribute to the promises about a world run by “generalized intelligence,” Kennedy added.

“We don’t have that technology,” Kennedy said. “Watson — perhaps the most famous robot — is just specialized intelligence. If you asked Watson to do something a four year old could do that it wasn’t programmed to do, it couldn’t.”

Timeslots of the future

For all the recent fear and trepidation of robotics taking over workplaces, the panic is not anything new, Kennedy said. She said experts and analysts have been predicting a 20-year timeline to “complete AI” for more than 70 years. But this time, things may indeed be different.

“You feel it in Boston, maybe a 20 year [timeline] is going to be right this time,” she said.

To compete in the future, Kennedy said companies considering AI implementation must create a culture of “collective intelligence.” Hierarchical decision-making has been the norm for decades, but technology has fostered community work — what Kennedy’s lab calls the “supermind” of shared values and norms.

“The idea of communities is rising,” Kennedy said to the young people in the audience.

As the young students left the panel and wandered back into HubWeek 2018, they had learned a non-Hollywood version of very powerful technology.

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