SXSW Wrap Up: Robot Panelists, AI and the Future of Identity

At the beginning of my SXSW “Robot Panelists, AI and the Future of Identity” panelist Bruce Duncan of the Terasem Foundation told me, “human beings were built to connect with other people” and that instinct gets extended to his robot, Bina48. He also told me the moment that we take the cover off of Bina48, that the audience won’t be interested in the panelists anymore. They’ll only want to talk to “her”.

I had no idea how right he was.

Bina48 is an animatronic bust of a woman, with servos, cameras, microphones, and speakers. Everything runs into a PC tower. Recorded sound is translated to text and fed into a system that generates a response, which is “spoken” through the robot. The end result is a robot that can have a basic conversation with you. Yes, Bina48 is an interesting project, but after finding out how she works, I began to understand why the computer responded as it did. And in the end I’m not half as intrigued by her as I am the response by homo sapiens in the room.

The audience projected their own humanity onto her at every opportunity. Their questions, doubts, fears, and dreams. I began to see the session more as a view into the human psyche than the computer’s computations. You could feel the thirst that people have to find out the meaning of life’s big questions that lie, mostly unanswered, just beneath the surface. We can’t think about those questions all the time or it would drive us nuts. But when confronted with something as startlingly different, yet strangely identifiable as Bina48, those questions surface – immediately. The audience asked her questions like, “what is the meaning of life” “what are your goals” and “do you love?” The answers were met by laughs and gasps, by everyone, me included.

As the excitement wears off, I am left with a contemplative feeling. I’m thankful to Bruce for lugging 60 pounds of robot to Austin. It provided a much needed opportunity to dust off those unanswered questions and revel in the mystery of life.

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