​What advances in robotics and AI bode for us

It could turn out to be mankind's biggest technological leap forward: Artificial Intelligence, or AI for short -- unless all the AI-endowed robots decide to take over for us someday. Our Cover Story is reported by David Pogue of Yahoo Tech:

For decades, Hollywood movies have taught us two things about robots: First, they'll someday walk on two feet, like people; and second, that most of them will eventually turn on us!

But in real life, humanoid robots like we see in the movies have always seemed to be 20 years away. Well, don't look now ...

Last weekend, robots competed in a competition run by DARPA, the military's advanced technology division. You may have heard of some of its previous projects: self-driving cars, GPS, and a little thing called the Internet.


DARPA offered $3.5 million in prizes for robots that can navigate a disaster-rescue scenario. With only intermittent remote control by a human operator, the robots have to perform tasks like driving, turning off a valve, drilling out a wall, crossing a pile of rubble, and climbing stairs.

"It is an extraordinary thing, isn't it?" said Gill Pratt, who heads the DARPA Robotics Challenge. "When the robot does well and it scores a point, everyone cheers as if they're the ones that are getting the points. And then of course when the robot teeters and then suddenly falls, everybody goes, 'Oh,' and they sympathize with it."

Pratt described the robots competing as "Model Ts." "I think that in coming years, first of all, the most important thing is reliability will go up, prices will go down, and we'll find more and more reasons for [cheering]."

Yes, the crowd was cheering -- the robot walked. As evidenced by the number of falling robots, just walking is a major accomplishment.

"We're still a long way from science fiction," said Russ Tedrake, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who led MIT's robot in the DARPA competition. His robot was spotted falling out a car -- Tedrake said it tried to drive while it was getting out of the vehicle.

But even with a broken right arm, the robot finished the course one-handed, earning a respectable 7 out of 8 points.

"This competition, a few similar competitions have convinced the world that robots are capable of doing real things in the real world," said Tedrake. "That has led to massive new investments from Google, Apple, Uber, Qualcomm. And that's gonna mean an acceleration of technology. Things are gonna go really fast from here on out."

Alex Garland would agree. He's the writer-director of "Ex Machina," a movie that considers what technology might be like just a little bit in the future.


The film, about a thinking robot (played by Alicia Vikander), is just one example of such creations in recent popular culture. When asked to explain the resurgence of interest in robots, Garland said, "I think it may not actually to do with AI. In some respects I think it's more to do with technology, and a fear of technology. We all have cell phones and we all have tablets and laptops and computers. And we don't really understand how these things work. But they seem to understand how we work. And that makes us feel uneasy."

In most movies, said Pogue, "where there is a very smart robot, like yours, [they] turn out to be menacing or threatening in some way, if not pure evil."

"Actually, in the case of this film, 'Ex Machina,' I don't think the robot is evil," said Garland. "What I think is that the robot is like us. It's sentient. And that robot has been unreasonably imprisoned and -- like us -- wants to get out of that prison.

"We have a bad history, humans, with not respecting sentients. And we don't want to keep making the same kinds of mistakes."