The Present and the Possible: FutureWorld 2017

FITC recently hosted FutureWorld, a one-day event in Toronto where leading roboticists presented their perspectives on the recently possible, and their visions for what the future could look like. And, as artificial intelligence and robotics move out of research labs and into our daily routines, it’s undoubtedly time to ask questions about what’s on the horizon.

The day began with a talk by Jonathan Tippett of Furrion Robotics who has developed a new sport with robots. Somewhere between rally driving and robot wars, Furrion’s new sport requires humans to pilot quadrupedal gorilla-inspired robots on an off-road track. Furrion’s robots have no stabilization or intelligence, but, when piloted with skill, they showcase a level of athleticism that is achievable only by blending man with machine.

Another popular theme at FutureWorld was soft robotics. Ignacio Galiana from Harvard’s Wyss institute showed us their latest work on soft exosuits. By bringing engineers and apparel designers together, Ignacio’s group has made clothing that can augment walking performance even while carrying heavy loads. Michael Tolley from UCSD presented bio-inspired soft robotics where automated systems are imbued with qualities like robustness, adaptability, and self-healing. And filmmaker Rob Spence showcased his “Eyeborg” camera, a prosthetic eye with a wireless video camera embedded inside of it, and how he incorporates it in his art.

Another interesting presentation was Angelica Lim’s, who demonstrated SoftBank Robotics’ research on designing sociable humanoid robots. She explained how, when we interact with robots on a more regular basis, we might expect them to understand the subtle and idiosyncratic rules of human communication. For example, robots should avert their gaze in the same way that humans do to regulate intimacy. Discourse markers, like “so”, “basically”, “right”, and “okay,” also make verbal robot communication more fluid. She also emphasized the need for the tone to match the sentiment of what’s being communicated.

Another topic that was top-of-mind at FutureWorld was, naturally, AIs taking over the jobs of humans. When it comes to automation, job displacement has always been a concern, and the advent of AI could have far-reaching consequences. Offering a fresh perspective, George Babu from Kindred, an AI development company, put forward his views on the new kinds of jobs that AI might produce. He also presented his thoughts on entering a new “post-scarcity” era and how strategies like universal basic income can ease that transition.

In addition to these presentations, the organizers had also curated a robotics gallery. A number of innovative startups from Toronto had set up booths, and we were impressed by the diversity of applications for AI and robotics, from toys for toddlers to bots who make tea.

The day ended with a thought-provoking panel discussion that touched on all the themes covered throughout the day. We left thinking about about our responsibility as designers and engineers as we incorporate new technologies into our practice. FutureWorld was a glimpse into the world of tomorrow, and we look forward to next year’s event!

the author

Udit Vira

Udit Vira is a former electromechanical designer at Idea Couture.