There is a certain oversized quality in a convention center in Las Vegas that makes you a child monarch: powerful and helpless at the same time. The rooms and corridors are probably cavernous because the space is cheap in the desert, but the overall effect somehow manages to suffocate. It feels suspiciously big, as if it is never the intention to leave. The attributes of a conference do nothing to dispel this feeling: everything is arranged – your room, your food, your schedule – and hey, look! They even have robots that hand out snacks!
I am on Amazon & re: MARS Conference, and I am here, I am told because I am a & # 39; builder & # 39; or a & # 39; dreamer & # 39; am. Maybe I'm both. As Amazon exec explains Dave Limp during the opening keynote, we do that all of them builders and dreamers, and we have been called to this terrible carpet conference center to "visualize the future." It is actually a nice speech by the standard of tech keynotes: light-hearted, inspiring, unfocused. Written down, it seems that the output of a neural network has been trained in TED Talks – "Invention with such an incredible speed"; "If we imagine it, we can build it"; "We are literally in a golden age of computer science" – which is at least thematically relevant.
Limp explains that re: MARS is the first public version of Amazon & # 39; s mysterious MARS conference (machine learning, automation, robotics and space). MARS is usually a private event where a few hundred scientists, creatives and business types are hosted by Jeff Bezos. They eat canapes, attend group meditations and discuss technologies that will make or break the future. The chat is pretty much the same here in Vegas. But instead of 200 selected attendees, 3,000 people shuffle around in key cords, backpacks and comfortable shoes. And instead of luxury workshops on forging and sausage making, there are seminars on how you can build better robots, smarter AI, and maybe even colonize the solar system. The food is probably not that good.
But it is only when I am in a "party bus" three days later, coming back from the last night festivities at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway event, when I begin to understand what Limp was talking about – what's re: MARS is really about – and strictly speaking, it is not the future of the world. It is the future of Amazon. The trick is, from where I stand, they look about the same.
Amazon started its life as an online bookseller, and so it learned to develop services that are scalable. Amazon chose to sell books because they are & # 39; pure merchandise & # 39; are, according to the history of Brad Stone in 2013, The Everything Store, so the customer always knows what they are getting. By selling books, Amazon has built tools to manage suppliers and inventories. The company focused on faster shipping and undercutting of competitors' prices. These are the qualities that Amazon still strives for, but the inventory is no longer limited to books.
The same evolution took place with Amazon Web Services, the subsidiary of cloud computing. It launched as a "data storage service" in 2006, but it has since become indispensable for modern technology companies – if necessary, when paper clips were just a damn sight more profitable. So many companies rely on Amazon services that when the industry grows, AWS does. Last year AWS made alone more money than McDonald's. AWS is perhaps the future of Amazon, which explains why it was everywhere on: MARS.
AWS was central to her in the main room DeepRacer contest. DeepRacer is designed to allow developers to use AWS systems by challenging them to program a self-driving model car that is one-eighteenth of its actual size. It is a way to encourage engineers to scale up their ambitions, the company says, with anyone who can enter an AI driver on a USB stick.
I soon found out that AWS was also one of the most important parts of the workshops and seminars at the conference, such as: how do you improve crop health to prevent food waste? Or do you discover emotions in someone's voice? Or earn money on the electricity market by accurately predicting the weather? The answer to all these questions was invariably the same: use AWS. This mantra was so consistent that it felt like we were indoctrinated in a cloud computing cult.
"These things are usually a big ad," one participant told me while we saw how the self-driving model cars & rabbits in a petting zoo got out of reach of their handlers.
I thought the conference was huge, but most of the people I spoke to praised the & # 39; intimate & # 39; feeling. Amazon has an annual event dedicated to AWS, but it is huge with up to 60,000 participants. It is also dominated by product announcements and business deals, while Vegas is smaller and friendlier, which is better for inciting strange conversations between people from different sectors.
"It looks like they're trying to get the smartest people in the same building and let them talk to each other," says Michael Bell, a PhD student and research fellow at Harvard's School of Engineering, who is the newest university work with soft robotic grippers. "People came by and asked me if they could use these things to clean the oceans. You don't really understand that at other conferences."
The seminars in Vegas definitely had a speculative, futuristic advantage for them. There were conversations about neural interfaces and AI-controlled prostheses. Space exploration was a relatively small theme, but it added a stylish, cheerful note to the whole thing, such as napkin holders. Last month, Bezos unveiled plans for a moon lander built by his company Blue Origin before sketching a Panglossian vision of space colonization, with a trillion souls living in space in huge, forest-filled, rotating colonies.
These futuristic ideas are proof to Amazon and its supporters that the world will always need the same resources that the company now offers: digital infrastructure, storage and computing power. Such as cheap prices and fast shipping, these things do not go out of fashion.
While Bezos joked on stage when asked if there would ever be Amazon warehouses on the moon, Amazon will always focus on giving customers what they need. "We will start supplying liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen," he said. "It will be a small selection, but a very important one."
That is the future for Amazon, but it is a long way off. Walking around re: Mars, it was clear what the company is focusing on: robots and AI.
The company's biggest announcements at the show were all focused on smart machines that offer us. There was the new Prime Air delivery drone, which is due to dropping packages in "the coming months." There was the six-wheeled Scout robot, which is currently being tested in a digital simulacrum of suburbia. And there were two new robot additions to the Amazon warehouses: Pegasus and Xanthus, named after mythical horses, work more closely with human workers than previous generations.
This is an important development in automation that Amazon can benefit enormously from. Most of the robots that companies now use are large, stupid and strong – the type you see when lifting car doors and spot welding in factories. They are the beautiful lunks of the robot world: extremely capable but only capable of carrying out the same task over and over again. They have no idea where they are or what they do, which means they can only be used to a limited extent. People, in comparison, thrive in unpredictable and changing environments. We even make environments unpredictable just by sitting in them, which is the main reason why we cannot work closely with machines.
But the robots of the future are smarter. They use AI and sensors to see us coming and adapting to unplanned challenges, and the idea of even giving machines basic concepts justifies every headline you see about automation that threatens jobs.
Amazon does not sell robots, but sells the infrastructure on which they depend. Last year it launched RoboMaker, an AWS service for the development and implementation of robot control systems. It offers a whole range of AI services that are essential to make machines smarter, such as machine vision and voice control. At re: MARS it also showed how the infrastructure will make it easier to have robots at home, with Alexa acting as a hub to control iRobot & # 39; s new mop, vacuum and lawn mowers. In fact, during an interview with iRobot's CEO on the perfect plastic lawn of the house, Alexa was so helpful that we had to unplug it. (Alexa wanted us to know it was updating.)
But Re: MARS has shown how instinctive and even wonderful it can be to communicate with robots. The keynotes of the first evening included a speech by Marc Raibert, CEO of Boston Dynamics. Raibert outlined the company's plan to sell its first commercial robot, the Quadrupedal Spot. After the speeches, the handlers sent two of the machines into the crowd. They found a real (police) dog to play with, and even offered the confused animal a peace offering in the form of a hug.
I had the opportunity to control one of the robots myself. Unlike the impression given in Boston Dynamics' viral videos & # 39; s, these machines are absolute are not autonomous. They are easy to steer, but they are people who tell them where to go. They are also impressively robust. We may not like to see how robots are kicked, but it shows that they can handle surprises (as opposed to those big, stupid and strong bots). I asked one of the handlers what damage I could do with Spot, but she told me that there was a force limiter on the grab arm. It is the same reason that Amazon gives certain warehouse workers energy belts that freeze all robots in their environment: better than cure.
It is relatively easy to prevent robots from hurting people one-on-one. But when smarter robots occur more often, they will indirectly harm people. It deepens and makes social inequality political division even worse. It creates uncertain jobs that are hell to work. Automation often means that people are forced to pursue the characteristics that managers expect from machines: efficiency, reliability and most importantly check.
Take the cleaning and shelf scanning robots that are used in supermarkets such as Walmart for example. Executives say the robots take on boring tasks and free employees to create & # 39; more satisfactory jobs & # 39 ;. But employees say that taking care of the robots – which are often broken or defective – becomes a fully-fledged job, reported The Washington Post this month. At the same time, employees say their work has become more mechanical, like the people that Amazon uses in its warehouses as "pickers," who stay in one place and put items in boxes while machines dance around them with shelves of products.
I felt a bit like a package. Everywhere I went re: MARS, there were helpers with burnt T-shirts, who pointed me to my next destination. I was beaded from conversation to meal to interview to sleep to wake up at breakfast to talk again like I was on a conveyor belt.
It's classic Amazon, this obsession with control and efficiency, but it all broke down at one point in the conference. Halfway through the Q&A of Bezos during the last keynote speeches, a protestant from animal protection group Direct Action Everywhere burst onto the stage and demanded that the CEO do something about the treatment of chickens on farms that sell to his farms.
& # 39; Jeff, please, you are the richest man on the planet. You can help these animals, "she said.
Bezos hardly reacted and looked straight ahead while guards intercepted the demonstrator and pushed her off the stage. I then thought he showed remarkable calm. "Bezos unperturbed", I wrote in my notes. But now I don't know for sure. What looked calm was perhaps a simple refusal to acknowledge that something unplanned and undesirable had happened.
"My apologies. Where were we?" Asked Bezos after the protester was removed. He did not address the issue of animal welfare. Instead, he continued with his plan to send thousands of satellites into space to beam high-speed internet to the world.
I was thinking of Bezos' plans for humanity later that evening when I watched a couple of BattleBots robots tear each other in a cage at the re: MARS closing party.
Like many Silicon Valley leaders, Bezos presents technological progress as analogous to Amazon's own rise to fame. It's just a matter of focusing on the right features – faster shipping, lower prices – and grinding away until you reach your goal. But what qualities do we focus on in our current drive for automation? Do we actually make life better for people? Or, like Amazon, do we deposit all our profits back into the greater goal of more growth without stopping to think about how else this wealth could be used? This could explain why so many tech illuminators are afraid of a runaway AI scenario, where a super-intelligent machine fixes itself on a single task (such as making paper clips) and accidentally destroys humanity in the process.
Wandering around the party, half stunned by the heat of Vegas, I asked those present what they were making of Bezos & # 39; plans. Most were enthusiastic. Some thought it was par for the course for tech billionaires, the ideological equivalent of a vest in Patagonia. I was told that space colonization was the new religion of the 21st century, a higher goal that would only become more important after robots had robbed us of the meaning of work.
I thought that sounded good while I was standing in a crowd watching a huge exoskeleton robot towing a vintage 13,000-pound fire truck. All that metal and power. It was certainly something to believe in. At least, it was something impressive to watch while we spent the time and made plans for a better life that might never come.
Photography by James Vincent / The Verge