Mary Lou Jepsen during the Convergence of Man and Machine panel at Techonomy 2017. Photo Credit: Paul Sakuma Photography

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend Techonomy as an alum of AI4ALL. The focus of conference was the “convergence of man and machine” with the specific goal of “[exploring] how technology can be used to accelerate progress toward achieving the UN sustainable goals” and encouraging more equity around the world to prevent global instability. The speakers and panelists were from a variety of national scientific agencies, universities, and corporations, representing views across the spectrum on the future of artificial intelligence and tech in general. It is not often that high school students get the opportunity to attend an event that provides such industrywide exposure (that I could never hope to acquire sitting in a classroom), so I was particularly excited.
What really stood out for me was that most of the technologies discussed in the conference are being used to address some of the most fundamental problems faced by the world today. Though panelists did debate about job losses, affordability, implementation, and misuse, most of the applications discussed were ultimately motivated by the desire to improve the quality of human life.
For example, Mary Lou Jepsen from Openwater spoke about how her company had invented wearable devices that could see inside the human body or brain with the precision of high-resolution camera images and MRI machines, which were extremely useful for medical diagnosis. What really captivated my interest was when she spoke of how it was possible for machines to convert unedited thoughts into concrete manifestations through those wearable devices, so that people could “communicate through thought alone” in the future. The implications are alarming. As someone in the audience pointed out, it creates the possibility of having your boss read all your innermost unflattering, critical thoughts. It would probably not be a very pleasant world, but even then, the original intent behind the technology was positive.
The next speaker, Tessa Lau from Savioke, spoke of relay robots, “the new generation of service robots” that would revolutionize the service industry by providing the coolest room service to hotel guests. She explained how Elvis and Priscilla (yes, these robots have names) were the pilot projects already hard at work in a Las Vegas hotel, handing out toothbrushes, robes, and towels. They are programmed to handle various levels of etiquette and had already completed 200,000 successful deliveries. This was an excellent example of supervised learning, which in this case implies learning from existing norms of behavior and ongoing interactions with guests. Some of the concerns discussed in connection with these robots include the potential for job loss and the issue of the liability and limits of the robot’s self-defense mechanism, which would come into play if it encountered an abusive guest.
In his presentation, Justin Sanchez from DARPA spoke about the future of brain-machine interfaces and neurotech, which records the synaptical connections between the nerve cells through sensors placed on the peripheral nervous system (PNS) to enable the interaction between computers and the brain. Using this technology, a patient paralyzed from the neck down was able to shake hands with President Obama using a robotic arm controlled by the patient’s thoughts. The objective was to “make people whole again.” While concerns about affordability and misuse by the military were raised in the audience, I could not help but feel that unless we explored the possibilities, we would never know what good we can achieve using AI.
The author of the article, Avantika Ghosh (left), is a high school student in the Bay Area.

This provided a good segue to the policy-oriented presentations. The first of these was by Penny Pritzker, a successful American businesswoman and former U.S. Secretary of Commerce. One of the issues she raised about AI policy was the fact that although many government officials and legislators lack a deep understanding of AI, they are still expected to craft laws and direct AI development. I thought this was a fundamental problem and instead of alarmist views of how AI could destroy society or jobs, it would serve us better to educate more people from diverse backgrounds on what AI really means.
Overall, Techonomy 2017 was eye-opening and allowed me to step out of the classroom to experience and interact with the adult world of scientists, researchers, and policymakers, who are engaged in shaping the future of AI.