Amazon's re:Mars conference: What to expect

From delivery logistics to space colonization, the new Amazon conference covers a wide range of topics, showcasing the impressive potential of AI.

At re:Mars, Amazon takes the enterprise to space Katie Kelly of North Richland Hills, Texas is attending the new Amazon conference to learn about applying ML to improve the user experience -- but might get more inspiration from the sessions focused on space exploration.

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Amazon has already exploited the power of AI to dominate e-commerce, push forward the potential of cloud computing and bring an ever-present personal assistant into your home. At its re:Mars conference in Las Vegas this week, Jeff Bezos's corporation intends to shed some light on where it expects artificial intelligence to take us in the future.  

The re:Mars conference is effectively the public version of Bezos's exclusive MARS conference, an annual, invitation-only gathering that brings together experts in academia and industry to discuss the future of Machine Learning, Automation, Robotics and Space (MARS). While MARS is intended to stimulate optimism and creative thinking, re:Mars has some more down-to-Earth goals: teaching its attendees how to apply AI and machine learning to their own businesses.  

Also: Managing AI in the enterprise  

Even so, the re:Mars conference is also designed to generate enthusiasm for AI, with sessions on topics like colonizing space and remarks from Bezos and AI leaders like Andrew Ng. There will even be an appearance from Iron Man actor Robert Downey, Jr.

"We're at the beginning of a golden age of AI," Bezos said in a statement announcing the conference earlier this year. "Recent advancements have already led to invention that previously lived in the realm of science fiction—and we've only scratched the surface of what's possible."

Here's a look at everything we can expect from re:Mars:

The basics: Who, what, why

Artificial intelligence is already having profound impacts, in consumers' lives and in the enterprise. Business leaders are increasingly aware of the competitive advantage they stand to gain from adopting AI-powered tools -- and of the risk of falling behind if they don't. A report released this year from Appen and Figure Eight, who are among re:Mars' sponsors, found that 29 percent of line-of-business owners spend $250,000 or more on AI.


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With that context, re:Mars provides yet another avenue to introduce the enterprise to Amazon Web Services' many AI-based capabilities. As the dominant public cloud provider, AWS can play a key role for organizations that want to add some AI magic to their own operations. New and improved products are coming out at a rapid clip -- there's no room for AWS to breathe easy with cloud competitors like Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, IBM and others continuously improving their own AI capabilities and services. 

In more than 100 sessions at re:Mars -- including keynotes, innovation spotlights and interactive workshops and robotics demos -- attendees will learn not just about how they can apply existing AI applications to their own industries but see how others are doing it. They'll also see the way Amazon and its partners and customers are pushing the state of the art of AI.

Attendees will hear from Amazon leaders including Bezos, Amazon's Worldwide Consumer CEO Jeff Wilke and SVP of Amazon Devices and Services Dave Limp. They'll also hear from Amazon's customers and partners, including leaders from Blue Origin, Boston Dynamics, Intel, iRobot, Stanford University, MIT, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and UC Berkeley.

BUILDING SMART ASSISTANTS, GROUNDBREAKING INTERFACES

Amazon's Alexa is arguably its most visible use of AI. As of January, there were more than 28,000 Alexa-enabled devices. In 2018, nearly 40 percent of the smart speakers shipped globally featured built-in support for Alexa, according to Strategy Analytics. At re:Mars, attendees will learn more about the innovative ways Amazon and others are applying the technologies that drive cutting-edge interfaces like voice-based tools.

SEE: Amazon's slew of new Echo, Alexa devices obscures new developer tools, features

Alexa herself appears several times in the re:Mars agenda. For instance, attendees can learn how to connect their own devices to the Amazon assistant via the Alexa Connect Kit. It includes a module that has Bluethooth and wi-fi, and it's connected to cloud services developers need, such as security, authentication, and configuration.

Attendees can also hear about how major consumer brands, like Butterball and Atom Tickets, are using voice services to grow customer engagement and win marke share. There's also a session on Alexa Guard, showcasing how AI can extend beyond speech to understand other sounds.

There are also a number of sessions exploring the future UIs. For instance, attendees can learn about the way firms like CTRL-Labs are opening up the doors for neural interfaces, or how speech samples and machine learning can be used to detect emotions in a speaker's voice.

ENABLING COMMERCE WITH MACHINE LEARNING AND AUTOMATION

A significant portion of the conversation at re:Mars will focus on enabling commerce -- another predictable topic from the e-commerce giant.

Amazon plans to reveal new information about one of its most ambitious commerce efforts, its drone delivery service Prime Air. The company will also give a look under the hood of another one of its commerce innovations: The Amazon Go store. Amazon experts will dive deep into the technology components that comprise the "Just Walk Out Technology" system, including computer vision, sensor fusion and deep learning. Getting down into the nitty-gritty of logistics, Amazon will also explain how it's using machine learning and mathematical optimization to dynamically manage the Amazon Locker experience.

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For potential Amazon customers, there are opportunities to hear about using computer vision and machine learning to detect brand logos, or how AI could even help you generate a list of potential product names.

Sessions will also cover creating personalized shopping experiences and understanding customer intent, as well as using tools like Amazon SageMaker to advance machine learning projects.  

ROBOTS!

The robotics demos and sessions at re:Mars may prove to be the biggest draw. For the first time, Amazon will show off to the public Amazon Scout -- the fully-electric, autonomous package delivery device. They'll also highlight other companies using AWS RoboMaker -- the cloud robotics service -- including AION Robotics, NASA JPL, Robotics Care Systems, AAEON, Bosch and iRobot.

The conference coincides with the launch of iRobot 2.0, which includes a new design language, a common software platform and a plan for the company to move beyond its core home vacuum and mopping systems. The nearly 30-year-old company, now a significant player in the smart home market is collaborating with Amazon at the conference to showcase full-scale smart home technology.  


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The conference also includes a Robotics Showcase featuring the latest innovations from businesses and university labs, including Boston Dynamics, UBTECH, Boeing, Temi, Accenture, Carnegie Mellon and Harvard.

Meanwhile, conference attendees will be able to try out AWS Deep Racer -- the autonomous scale car designed to teach developers about reinforcement learning -- on virtual tracks inspired by famous raceways.

There will also be opportunities to learn about other AWS tools used in robotics, like Amazon Kinesis Video Streams and AWS IoT.

SPACE, AND THE EXISTENTIAL STUFF

It wouldn't be the re:Mars conference without space, and Bezos has plenty to talk about on this front. This year, his private space company Blue Origin will send its first astronauts to space on its New Shepard rocket. Conference attendees will hear about the company's long-term mission to enable a future where millions of people are living and working in space. They'll also be able to sit in the New Shepard crew capsule.

 Taking the journey one step further, re:Mars attendees can hear from experts like Dr. Natalie Rens, founder of the AI startup Astreia, about sustaining human life in space with AI.


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Meanwhile, they can also hear from Amazon about monitoring conditions back on Earth. The conference will showcase the way companies are using AWS Ground Station, a fully-managed ground station-as-a-service, and combining it with services like EC2 and Rekognition.

There are also a several sessions at re:Mars on topics related to improving the human condition, such as improving crop health with AI, using data to find new solutions to climate change, fighting human trafficking with machine learning and preventing infant vision loss with AI.

WHAT NOT TO EXPECT: DOOM AND GLOOM

While the agenda at re:Mars is wide-ranging, attendees will be hard-pressed to find much of the skepticism and concern that often accompanies discussions around AI. The problems aren't entirely ignored; they are, however, addressed with an optimistic approach.

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For instance, rather than focus on the unintended consequences of technology, Intel's Naveen Rao will deliver remarks on "Intended consequences," and according to the re:Mars agenda, "will discuss how to think about AI in a way that helps bring about the positive aspects of the technology's future, and try to avoid the pitfalls."

Other sessions, meanwhile, will explore mitigating bias in machine learning models and promoting fairness in AI. And while many are concerned about the job losses that are likely to come with automation, the closest re:Mars appears to come to addressing this is with a session called, "True Human-Robot Collaboration."