Amazon's re:Mars serves up AI inspiration

The burgeoning world of AI has generated a whole host of serious challenges, as well as skepticism about its business value, but Amazon's new conference serves as a reminder of why it generates so much excitement.
Written by Stephanie Condon, Senior Writer

Amazon's inaugural re:Mars conference kicked off Tuesday night with what you could call an anti-keynote: While your typical keynote is jam-packed with product announcements, there were basically none on the Las Vegas stage at re:Mars.

In fact, a portion of the keynote was devoted to innovations in robotics that have no apparent business application -- the development of animatronic stunt performers by scientists at Walt Disney Imagineering. 

At Disney, "'super cool' is the business case," Morgan Pope, Associate Research Scientist at Walt Disney Imagineering,  said on stage. Their team, he said, gets "to do things that maybe aren't feasible in the field for a while, but I hope they are at least inspirational."

Along with scientists from Disney, the opening night of re:Mars featured appearances from actor Robert Downey, Jr. and Boston Dynamics' robot Spot.

At re:Mars, Amazon is effectively reminding its partners and potential customers why they're investing in AI -- its untapped potential. In between sessions about leveraging machine learning tools and services, re:Mars attendees can watch robots battle or hear about how AI will enable space colonization.

Also: Managing AI in the enterprise  

"Now more than ever, the gap is narrowing between builders and dreamers," Dave Limp, SVP of Amazon Devices & Services, said in the Tuesday night keynote address. "And if we imagine it, we can actually build it... We really do believe we can solve the most interesting and challenging problems facing us today using AI."

Artificial intelligence promises to transform industries, tackle some of humanity's biggest problems and fundamentally change the way people live. Yet as AI applications get off the ground, their users and creators have been confronted with a thicket of problems: How do we ensure AI algorithms don't propagate human biases? Can governments and corporations leverage smart tools without invading our privacy? What happens to global workforces when everything is automated?

These problems have yet to damper the enthusiasm in the enterprise for AI and machine learning, according to a recent survey by ZDNet's premium sister site, Tech Pro Research. Still, they're certainly not going to help drive AI adoption. The challenges presented by AI are drawing more scrutiny, and all the while, business leaders remain uncertain about its business value.

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Attendees of the inaugural re:Mars conference include "astronauts and CEOs, artists and engineers, PhDs and politicians," Limp said, "and of course, business leaders of all types."

The conference, he said, should inspire people, but also provide "the right content, learning opportunities and the right leaders to help you innovate in your own day-to-day careers."

Attendees at the conference seem to be embracing the mix of practical and inspirational programming.

Katie Kelly of North Richland Hills, Texas said she was attending "to try to figure out not just how to do a lot of machine learning, but also the right kinds of business problems to take to it." When applied to user experience, her area of expertise, Kelly said machine learning is like "putting rocket fuel on those interactions" -- it can go really wrong, or really right.

While the enterprise side of machine learning offers her plenty to think about, Kelly said, "I'm probably going to miss half a dozen machine learning sessions to jump to the space ones. The nerd in me is having a wonderful day." 

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