Oregon State University Conference Explores AI and Robotics

More than 1,200 people attended the event, which focused on questions around the risks and benefits of these emerging technologies.

by Jim Day, Corvallis Gazette-Times / October 25, 2018

(TNS) — Oregon State University’s celebration of its 150th anniversary made its last major splash Tuesday with an ambitious conference on artificial intelligence and robotics.

More than 1,200 people participated at the LaSells Stewart Center and the CH2M Hill Alumni Center: OSU faculty, staff and students. Students from elsewhere, including a 9-year-old from Portland who cut school. Corporate visitors.

It was all kind of overwhelming: Panel discussions and guest speakers running from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Cutting-edge displays in the conference’s “innovation fair.” And a lot of questions, particularly about the risks and benefits of AI and robots. That’s why OSU called the conference “the promise and the peril.”

For all of the promise, the conference also featured the consistent drumbeat of comments that began with the phrase "on the other hand."

Stephanie Jenkins, an OSU assistant professor of philosophy who specializes in disability studies, noted during a late-morning panel that a robot could be an effective caregiver for a disabled person, assisting with chores, medication cycles and food preparation.

But, on the other hand, she noted that the robot also would be collecting data. Who would happen to the data, she asked? What happens if there is a data breach? And how can you make sure that those in research and development will be consulting with people with disabilities?

Geoff Hollinger, another OSU assistant professor of mechanical engineering, posed the question: “What happens if a drone delivering for Amazon witnesses a crime? What do we do? Ethical and legal tools are needed.”

Introducing a discussion on privacy issues, moderator Thomas Dietterich, OSU professor emeritus in computer science, offered this as a starting point: “I’m astonished at how many people have invited Alexa into their homes to monitor their conversations.”

And then there is the issue of self-driving cars, one of the most tantalizing — as well as frightening — AI apps on the horizon.

What happens, Hollinger asked, if everybody’s self-driving system finds that a certain side street is the best way to get through a congested area? All of a sudden, there is gridlock on the side street.

And how do you make sure AI is reading the right signals? Jason Millar, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa in Canada, told an anecdote about a Google experiment that involved sorting out the difference between cat images and those of dogs.

The key factor, the experiment showed, was that Google noted that dog pictures had grass in the background. That’s not enough, Millar said.

“You want AI to be able to recognize a dog,” he said.

Participants were treated at lunchtime to an innovation fair in the Alumni Center. The famed OSU walking robot was there, along with an OSU Robotics Club Mars rover. And a robot that works underwater. And the Crescent Valley High squad’s broccoli harvester. A laser-guided air-assisted sprayer with an embedded computer was outside. It looked like a piece of farm equipment, not a robot.

In the Alumni Center's foyer were four “chair bots” that brave souls could make dance around the floor. Their names: Classic, Sassy, Limey and Cutey. Lionel Wylde, 9, tried his luck with Limey. The Portland fifth-grader showed up at the conference with his mother instead of joining his classmates at Kelly Elementary School, because of his interest in robots.

“This event is about looking to the future,” said Shelly Signs, coordinator of OSU’s 150th anniversary programs. And she was speaking about Tuesday’s conference as well as the dozens and dozens that preceded it.

“I totaled up that there were more than 170 individual events, presentations and co-hosted events that took place” during OSU's celebration of its anniversary, she said.

Many of the events were linked to OSU’s status as a land, sea, space and sun grant university. The list included hosting a solar eclipse party to sea tours along the coast and land tours in the university's forests, but Signs pointed to one constant:

“From every tour that I helped with I walked away with at least one story from a passionate visitor," she said. "We have much to be proud of at OSU.”

©2018 Corvallis Gazette-Times, Ore. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.