April 1, 2021 - 3:07pm

A little over a year ago, I went to visit the robotics lab of a well-known tech company for a piece I was writing, and spoke to a bunch of roboticists. It was incredible. The challenges of robotics are particular. With image recognition, say, you can train an AI on 10 billion images of dogs that you take from the internet. You can’t make a robot do a backflip 10 billion times to learn how it’s done; it would take about 600 years and would probably break the robot. The way they approached those challenges was absolutely fascinating.

The tech company wasn’t in Silicon Valley, but it was very much of Silicon Valley. Silicon-Valley-ish companies do incredible things. Last year, DeepMind solved the protein-folding problem. SpaceX launched humans into space, then landed the rocket again neatly on its pad. Just Meat started selling commercially available lab-grown meat.

This is ridiculous. It is future-stuff. It is science fiction.

But it’s easy to lose sight of that. The other day, Spotify announced that they were going to make it possible for podcasters to do live broadcasts. Hundreds of people — including journalists at Vox, Slate, and BuzzFeed — made the same joke: lol, they’ve invented radio. A few days earlier, an NYT tech columnist sniffed about Boston Dynamics — they of the backflip robot — inventing an Amazon-warehouse-shelf-stacking robot. “[A] pretty good metaphor for a lot of today’s AI and automation,” he said.

This is not new: “X. The techbros have invented X” is a whole genre of joke tweet/column. A few years ago, a silly startup tried to disrupt the smoothie market or something with a $400 blender called Juicero. It was very silly, and so the Washington Post, Newsweek, Vox, Slate etc lined up to tell us that it was “what’s wrong with Silicon Valley”.

But Silicon Valley-ish firms will, of course, do some silly things; there are thousands. But as Scott Alexander says, while Silicon Valley invented the Juicero, it’s also driven a world solar revolution. It’s flown the first zero-emissions hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft. It’s — I mean, look around you. What are you reading this on? The techbros have invented the modern world. For better or worse.

And even these recent examples: does anyone really think that Spotify doesn’t know that live radio exists? They’ve added a new function to their podcasting software. Now you can broadcast live. Yes, you could broadcast live via a radio station, if you happened to own a radio station. But most people do not own a radio station, and now if I want to start a Warhammer 40K live game report, I could do that. It’s not “just the radio”. It almost never is “X. They’ve invented X.”

As for that Amazon shelf-stacking robot. Yes, it’s less dramatic than a terrifying dog-like creature. But what do you think will have more impact on our lives? Spot the dog-robot, which does … something, or Stretch, which can move up to 800 boxes an hour in an Amazon warehouse? Sure, it’s only about as fast as a human, but it won’t need paying, and it will get better, and cheaper, very quickly.

Funnily enough, when I was speaking to the roboticists last year, one of them floated shelf-stacking, box-packing robots as one of the things that were just around the corner; the next few years, she said. She was right: here it is. My prediction is that even if this one doesn’t take off, one very soon will. And after that, all our conversations about how dreadful it is working in an Amazon warehouse will be obsolete, because you won’t have people working in Amazon warehouses any more. Will that be good? Bad? Who knows, but it will be a massive deal.

Credit: Hans Moravec

Hans Moravec has a metaphor of a landscape of human abilities, and AI capability as a rising water level. The water reached and overtopped human ability at chess-playing and facial recognition. Apparently it’s just reached “warehouse work”. Soon it will reach “driving”. Probably, in my lifetime, it will each “investing”, maybe even “social interaction”. Maybe one day it will reach AI design, and then things get really interesting.

Whether the outcomes are good or bad, this is the most exciting stuff happening in the world right now, and Silicon Valley is at the heart of it. If all you can say is “lol the techbros have invented the bus” every time some story breaks, then you’re missing out on the biggest story there is.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.