iRobot CTO: 'We' will be gone when AI is here

Rodney Brooks, professor of robotics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and CTO of iRobot, talks about artificial intelligence on the opening day of the Singularity Summit.

SAN FRANCISCO--At the current rate of technological change, people in 2025 should be able to spend $400 for an Apple iPod with 40 million gigabytes, more than enough room to hold every desirable movie or book.

That's the prediction of Rodney Brooks, professor of robotics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and CTO of iRobot. He cited the iPod as an example of exponential change in technology advancement--a subject of Moore's law--based on the iPod's storage leaps.

"So much for the RIAAand DRM," he joked.

Brooks gave the opening keynote here at the Singularity Summit, a two-day conference designed to discuss the benefits and risks of advancing artificial intelligence. He's among an esteemed lineup of speakers, including Steve Jurvetson, managing director of venture firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson; and Peter Norvig, Google's director of research and the former head of the NASA Ames computational group.

Brooks' talk focused partially on exponential technological change as a point for reaching artificial intelligence. In another example of exponentials, Brooks said Stanford's efforts in AI have grown by four orders of magnitude in 26 years. In 1979, Stanford AI lab built a robot that moved 20 meters over six hours. Then in 2005, Stanford built Stanley, an autonomous driving car that traveled 200 kilometers in six hours to win the DARPA Grand Challenge robot race.

But Brooks immediately expressed skepticism about the so-called singularity, the technological creation of the smarter-than-human intelligence.

"It's either technosalvation or technoholocaust," Brooks said. "But it's never quite as good as we think or as bad as we think."

That said, Brooks added that AI and robots will be essential to the future.

For example, iRobot, where he is chief technology officer, now has roughly 2.5 million robots in people's homes, up from zero in 2001. His company is also building military robots, 5,000 of which are deployed in Iraq. He said the U.S. military has about 1,000 robots called the Packbot in Iraq for the purpose of looking for roadside bombs.

He also talked about projects going on at MIT to develop robots. Kismet, for example, incorporates a visual attention system so it can respond to people in a way that helps people to trust it. Kismet examines skin tone, motion and color through cameras in order to appropriately respond to people.

Brooks prediction for the future? He hypothesized about several scenarios involving artificial intelligence. He painted one picture in which people will be more dependent on robots for help in the home, largely because of an aging Baby Boomer population that needs more care than younger generations can provide. But in a scary turn, a virus infects the bots, killing millions of elderly Boomers--except for the Rolling Stone's Keith Richards, he joked.

More seriously, he said believes the population is on a course to change itself. For example, he believes that more people in the future will elect to implant brain-to-machine interfaces, such as brain stimulators, cochlear implants and visual implants. (Already, roughly 50,000 patients have cochlear implants to enhance their hearing; and visual implants and brain stimulators are currently in clinical trials.) He also believes that drug and genetic enhancement will become the norm.

"The point is that when artificial general intelligence appears, the world will be a very different place than it is today," he said. "We will be long gone."