Future of robotics and artificial intelligence debated at Prague conference

Robot Sophia, photo: ITU Pictures, CC BY 2.0

This Wednesday saw a conference in Prague called I, Robot, (Já, robot) bringing together researchers in both the public and private spheres to debate advances in robotics and artificial intelligence. One of the participants was Olga Afanasjeva, the COO of the Prague-based start-up GoodAI, which has been profiled by publications like The Economist, Forbes and also Radio Prague. Much of the discussion focussed on the future “just around the corner”.

Olga Afanasjeva, photo: archive of Olga Afanasjeva
I asked Olga Afanasjeva about the discussion, first.

“Well, it was quite diverse. We took a lot of questions from the audience and some of these reflected concerns that many people have about the future of certain technologies and the future of jobs and the transformation of society due to new technologies.

“There were questions about education, for example, what students should now be focussing on, what kind of skillsets people should develop in order to succeed what is already a fast-changing environment.

“There were also a lot of people from business who are interested in ways that AI can help them now. That was basically it.”

Your focus at GoodAI has specifically been on making advances in artificial general intelligence (AGI) or general-purpose AI; how does that fit in within the direction AI research is going or how do you gauge how far you have come?

“It can be difficult to say in this field where you are at the moment and you sometimes feel that you are still at the beginning. At the same time, quite significant strides have been made which have pushed the field forward. We and other groups around the world are trying to do just that: to make advances and find and develop new methods to overcome the many limits that even current state of the art technology has.

“We also recently founded a sister-company focusing on business applications so there we can see a little more immediate impact. There we are focusing on things like Industry 4.0, anomaly detection, insurance, and natural language processing, various fields.”

Robot Sophia, photo: ITU Pictures, CC BY 2.0
We saw just recently the humanoid robot Sophia, made by Hanson Robotics, Ltd., granted Saudi citizenship… but in truth the software isn’t there yet. We are talking about AI with the ability to learn… but not AGI.

“Well that’s the thing: we don’t really know how far off it is, it is difficult to estimate when humanity will achieve it. It is perhaps a symbolic gesture to give citizenship to a robot at this point. Nevertheless, advances are being made.

“One of the big trends at the moment is to use state of the art methods to use deep learning and machine learning to develop better deep learning and machine learning techniques. So we have kind of a meta-learning process.

“This is one of the methods for AI also, for the AI to search for better algorithms to improve itself. Those are some good trends. While today we are seeing a lot of various specialised [narrow] AIs in specific tasks and domains, general AI would help augment our own intelligence to take us to the next level.”