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I welcomed our new robot overlords at Amazon’s first AI conference

Walking the show floor at Amazon re:MARS

There’s a certain oversized quality to a Las Vegas conference center that makes you feel like a child monarch: simultaneously powerful and helpless. Presumably, the rooms and corridors are cavernous because space is cheap in the desert, but the overall effect somehow manages to be stifling. It feels suspiciously big, as if you’re never meant to leave. The trappings of a conference do nothing to dispel this feeling: everything is arranged — your room, your food, your schedule — and hey, look! They even have robots handing out snacks!

I’m at Amazon’s re:MARS Conference, and I’m here, I’m told, because I’m a “builder” or a “dreamer.” Maybe I’m both. As Amazon exec Dave Limp explains during the opening keynote, we’re all builders and dreamers, and we’ve been summoned to this hideously carpeted conference center to “envision the future.” It’s actually a fine speech by the standard of tech keynotes: lighthearted, inspirational, unfocused. Written down, it looks like the output of a neural network trained on TED Talks — “Invention at such incredible speed”; “If we imagine it, we can build it”; “We are literally in a golden age of computer science” — which is, at least, thematically relevant.

Limp explains that re:MARS is the first public version of Amazon’s secretive MARS (machine learning, automation, robotics, and space) conference. MARS is usually a private event where a few hundred scientists, creatives, and business types are hosted by Jeff Bezos. They eat canapés, attend group meditations, and discuss technologies that will make or break the future. The chat is pretty much the same here in Vegas. But instead of 200 select attendees, there are 3,000 of us shuffling around in lanyards, backpacks, and comfy shoes. And instead of luxury workshops on blacksmithing and sausage making, there are seminars on how to build better robots, smarter AI, and maybe even colonize the Solar System. The food is probably not as good, though.

But it’s only when I’m slumped on a “party bus” three days later, driving back from the event’s final night festivities at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, when I begin to understand what Limp was talking about — what re:MARS is really about — and it’s not, strictly speaking, the future of the world. It’s the future of Amazon. The trick is, from where I’m standing, they look pretty similar.

Amazon CTO Werner Vogels spreads the gospel onstage in Las Vegas’ Aria Resort and Casino.

Amazon began its life as an online bookseller, which is how it learned to build services that scale. Amazon chose to sell books because they’re “pure commodities,” according to Brad Stone’s 2013 history, The Everything Store, so the customer always knows what they’re getting. By selling books, Amazon built tools to manage vendors and inventories. The company focused on shipping faster and undercutting rivals’ prices. These are the qualities that Amazon still pursues, but its inventory is no longer limited to books.

The same evolution took place with Amazon Web Services, the company’s cloud computing subsidiary. It launched in 2006 as a “data storage service,” but it has since become indispensable to modern tech companies — as necessary as paper clips once were but a damn sight more profitable. So many companies rely on Amazon’s services that when the industry grows, AWS does, too. Last year, AWS alone made more money than McDonald’s. AWS is quite possibly the future of Amazon, which explains why it was everywhere at re:MARS.

In the main hall, AWS took center stage with its DeepRacer competition. DeepRacer is designed to get developers to use AWS systems by challenging them to program a self-driving model car that’s one-eighteenth the real size. It’s a way to encourage engineers to scale up their ambitions, says the company, with anyone able to enter an AI driver on a USB flash drive.

Attendees try their hand at assembling a DIY Moon lander.

I soon learned AWS was also a staple of the conference’s workshops and seminars like: how do you improve crop health to stop food waste? Or detect emotions in someone’s voice? Or make money on the electricity market by accurately predicting the weather? The answer to all of these questions was invariably the same: use AWS. This mantra was so consistent that it felt like we were being indoctrinated in a cloud computing cult.

“These things are usually one big advertisement,” one attendee told me as we watched the self-driving model cars veer out of reach of their handlers like rabbits at a petting zoo.

I thought the conference was huge, but most people I spoke to praised its “intimate” feel. Amazon does run an annual event dedicated to AWS, but it’s huge, with up to 60,000 attendees. It’s also dominated by product announcements and business deals, while Vegas was smaller and friendlier, which is better for sparking odd conversations between people from different industries.

“It seems like they’re trying to get the smartest people in the same building and get them to talk to one another,” said Michael Bell, a PhD candidate and research fellow at Harvard’s School of Engineering who was demoing the university’s latest work with soft robotic grippers. “People have come by and asked me whether they can use these things to clean up the oceans. You don’t really get that at other conferences.”

The interior of a mock-up Blue Origin crew capsule.
A “delta robot” used for pick-and-place automation tasks.
A robot insect built by Harvard scientists encased in resin.

The seminars in Vegas definitely had a speculative, futuristic edge to them. There were talks on neural interfaces and AI-controlled prosthetics. Space exploration was a relatively minor theme, but it added a classy, high-minded note to the entire affair, like napkin holders. Last month, Bezos unveiled plans for a Moon lander built by his company Blue Origin before outlining a Panglossian vision of space colonization, with a trillion souls living in space in huge, forest-filled rotating colonies.

These futuristic ideas are proof for Amazon and its backers that the world will always need the same resources that the company provides now: digital infrastructure, storage, and computing power. Like cheap prices and fast shipping, these things don’t go out of fashion.

As Bezos joked onstage when he was asked if there would ever be Amazon warehouses on the Moon, Amazon will always focus on giving customers what they need. “We’ll start out delivering liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen,” he said. “It’ll be a small selection, but a very important one.”

Amazon showed off two new warehouse robots at re:MARS: Pegasus and Xanthus.
Photo: Amazon

That’s the future for Amazon, but it’s a ways off. Walking around re:Mars, it was obvious what the company’s focusing on next: robots and AI.

The company’s biggest announcements at the show were all focused on clever machines that do our bidding. There was the new Prime Air delivery drone, which is due to start dropping packages in “the coming months.” There was the six-wheeled Scout robot, which is currently being put through its paces in a digital simulacrum of suburbia. And there were two new robotic additions to Amazon’s warehouses: Pegasus and Xanthus, named after mythical horses, work more closely with human employees than previous generations.

This a key development in automation that could benefit Amazon hugely. Most of the robots that companies use now are big, dumb, and strong — the type you see lifting car doors and making spot welds in factories. They’re the beautiful lunks of the robot world: extremely capable but only able to perform the same task over and over. They have no sense of where they are or what they’re doing, which limits how they can be used. Humans, by comparison, thrive in unpredictable and changing environments. In fact, we make environments unpredictable just by being in them, which is the main reason we can’t work closely with machines.

But the robots of the future are smarter. They use AI and sensors to see us coming and adapt to unplanned challenges, and the thought of giving machines even basic brains is what justifies every headline you see about automation threatening jobs.

Amazon doesn’t sell robots, but it sells the infrastructure they depend on. Last year, it launched RoboMaker, an AWS service for developing and deploying robot control systems. It offers a whole suite of AI services that are indispensable for making machines smarter, like machine vision and voice controls. At re:MARS, it also showed off how its infrastructure will make it easier to have robots in the home, with Alexa acting as a hub to control iRobot’s new mopping, vacuuming, and lawn-mowing machines. In fact, during an interview with iRobot’s CEO on the house’s perfect, plastic lawn, Alexa was so helpful that we had to unplug it. (Alexa wanted us to know it was updating.)

But Re:MARS did show how instinctive and even delightful it can be to interact with robots. The first evening’s keynotes included a talk from Marc Raibert, CEO of Boston Dynamics. Raibert outlined the company’s plan to start selling its first commercial robot, the quadrupedal Spot. After the speeches, handlers steered two of the machines into the crowds. They found a real (police) dog to play with, even offering the confused animal a peace offering in the form of a cuddly toy.

I got a chance to drive one of the robots myself. Contrary to the impression given in Boston Dynamics’ viral videos, these machines definitely aren’t autonomous. They’re easy to steer, but it’s humans telling them where to go. They’re also impressively robust. We may not like watching robots get kicked, but it shows they can handle surprises (unlike those big, dumb, and strong bots). I asked one of the handlers what damage I might be able to do with Spot, but she told me there was a force limiter on its grabbing arm. It’s the same reason Amazon give certain warehouse workers utility belts that freeze all robots in their vicinity: better safe than sorry.

Keeping robots from hurting people one on one is relatively easy. But when smarter robots become more common, preventing them from hurting people indirectly will be the challenge. It deepens social inequality and makes political divisions worse. It creates precarious jobs that are hell to work. Automation often means humans are forced to emulate the qualities that managers desire from machines: efficiency, reliability, and especially control.

Take the cleaning and shelf-scanning robots being deployed in supermarkets like Walmart, for example. Executives say the robots are taking over boring tasks and freeing up employees to do “more satisfying jobs.” But employees say that looking after the robots — which frequently break down or malfunction — is becoming a full job, reported The Washington Post this month. At the same time, employees say their work has become more mechanical, like the humans Amazon employs as “pickers” in its warehouses who stay in one place putting items in boxes while machines dance around them with shelves of products.

I felt a bit like a package myself. Everywhere I went at re:MARS, there were helpers wearing branded T-shirts, pointing me on to my next destination. I was shuttled from talk to meal to interview to sleep to wake to breakfast to talk again like I was living on a conveyor belt.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos looks on as the animal welfare protestor is led off the stage.

It’s classic Amazon, this obsession with control and efficiency, but it all broke down at one moment in the conference. Midway through Bezos’ Q&A during the final keynote speeches, a protestor from animal welfare group Direct Action Everywhere burst onto the stage, demanding that the CEO do something about the treatment of chickens in farms that sell to his companies.

“Jeff, please. You’re the richest man on this planet. You can help these animals,” she said.

Bezos barely reacted, looking straight ahead as security guards intercepted the protestor and hustled her offstage. At the time, I thought he showed remarkable calmness. “Bezos unperturbed,” I wrote in my notes. But now, I’m not so sure. What looked like calm might have been a simple refusal to acknowledge that something unplanned and unwanted had happened.

“I’m sorry. Where were we?” Bezos asked after the protestor had been removed. He didn’t address the question of animal welfare. Instead, he continued to discuss his plan to launch thousands of satellites into space in order to beam high-speed internet to the world.

Revelers at the re:MARS party watch BattleBots duke it out.

I was thinking about Bezos’ plans for humanity later that evening as I watched a pair of BattleBots robots tear each other apart in a cage at the re:MARS closing party.

Like many Silicon Valley leaders, Bezos presents technological progress as analogous to Amazon’s own rise to prominence. It’s simply a matter of focusing on the right qualities — faster shipping, cheaper prices — and grinding away until you achieve your goal. But what qualities are we focusing on in our current drive to automation? Are we actually making life better for people? Or are we, like Amazon, funneling all of our profits back into the greater goal of more growth without stopping to think about how else this wealth could be used? This might explain why so many tech luminaries are scared of a runaway AI scenario, in which a super intelligent machine fixates on a single task (like building paper clips) and accidentally destroys humanity in the process.

Wandering around the party, half-stunned by the Vegas heat, I asked attendees what they made of Bezos’ plans. Most were enthusiastic. Some thought it par for the course for tech billionaires, the ideological equivalent of a Patagonia vest. One told me that space colonization was the 21st century’s new religion, a higher purpose that would only become more important after robots robbed us of the meaning provided by work.

I thought that sounded about right as I stood in a crowd watching a huge exoskeleton robot tow a vintage 13,000-pound fire truck. All that metal and power. It was certainly something to believe in. At least, it was something impressive to look at while we passed the time and planned for a better life that may never come.

Photography by James Vincent / The Verge

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