Charles Simon Of FutureAI On The Future of Robotics Over the Next Few Years
An Interview With David Leichner
… Software, software, software. These days, most robotic projects are software projects with a mechanical component, not the other way around. AI may not help much with the mechanical aspects of robotics because many mechanical problems can be solved efficiently with a knowledge of physics, forces, and feedback, rather than machine learning.
With the shortage of labor, companies are now looking at how robots can replace some of the lost labor force. The truth is that this is not really a novel idea, as companies like Amazon have been using robots for a while now. What can we expect to see in the robotics industry over the next few years? How will robots be used? What kinds of robots are being produced? To what extent can robots help address the shortage of labor? Which jobs can robots replace, and which jobs need humans? In our series called “The Future Of Robotics Over The Next Few Years” we are talking to leaders of Robotics companies, AI companies, and Hi-Tech Manufacturing companies who can address these questions and share insights from their experience. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Charles J. Simon.
Charles J. Simon, BSEE, MSCS, is a nationally recognized entrepreneur, software developer, and manager. With broad management, startup, and technical expertise and degrees in electrical engineering and computer science as well as a background in neuroscience, Simon has many years of computer experience in the industry, including time at Microsoft and pioneering work in AI and CAD.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started in robotics?
My initial robotics experience began in the 1980s. At the first company I founded, we worked with the automated tools needed for computer integrated circuit and printed circuit board fabrication. This experience served as a building block and gradually evolved to the more advanced industrial robots of today.
I’ve been a founder at four startups as either CEO or VP of Engineering and have interspersed these with numerous other projects around the country, including time at Microsoft. I have degrees in electrical engineering and computer science, as well as a background in neuroscience, and I’ve been responsible for pioneering work in the AI and CAD fields.
Currently, I’m founder and CEO of the deep technology startup FutureAI, where we’re developing artificial general intelligence technology that can think like a human — in the context of everything else it knows.
On a personal note, I have also sailed my boat 26,000 miles around the world and an additional 15,000 miles through the Arctic Northwest Passage.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I founded my first company, Vectron Graphic Systems, in Silicon Valley at the age of 21, because I had a unique approach to the new Computer-Aided Design (CAD) technology of the time. CAD allowed computers to help design more computers — a breakthrough that demonstrated the enormous potential of early software.
We snagged the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, now known as the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, as a customer. SLAC is a major research center operated by Stanford University for the U.S. Department of Energy, so this was a big moment for me as we participated in the development of instrumentation for cutting-edge physics experimentation.
We pioneered a “distributed” CAD system with a custom intelligent graphics terminal — a Tektronix graphics display with a local microprocessor and disk to provide good performance over slow phone lines. For design automation, we mimicked human design approaches to get improved trace routing of printed circuits.
In Silicon Valley, I was also able to meet the early heroes of the technology industry, like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. We were in the country’s hotbed of technical startups, just a few blocks from Fairchild Semiconductor, the inventors of the integrated circuit; Intel; National Semiconductor, now part of Texas Instruments; Hewlett Packard; and many others.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“…arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed towards ennobling man’s life…” — Albert Einstein
Science has been my life and using my ideas to improve the world has been my ultimate goal. From increasing productivity with my CAD technology to producing and donating a unique, interactive technology for use in museums, my drive to explore and improve has always been underscored by a desire to support the enrichment of arts and science alike.
Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
Through my current AI startup, FutureAI, I am working on developing artificial general intelligence technology that replicates facets of true human understanding. This field, artificial general intelligence, seeks to get machines to understand everything from the passage of time to properties like color, shape, and size — things that existing AI can’t do today.
Robotics are an integral component in developing this technology. It’s simply unrealistic to think that a computer program that has never experienced anything in the “real world” could ever comprehend or understand something the way a human does. In the same way, it would be unreasonable to expect that a person who has been blind since birth could comprehend and talk about color the same way as a sighted person.
Consider Alexa or Siri talking about things it has never and could never experience. The results will always come up short.
That’s why small mobile sensory pods could have a major impact on a system’s understanding of the world around it. By exploring its surroundings — picking up objects, viewing them from different angles — the AI can gain more knowledge through these experiences. Consider that one minute of playing with a puppy will give you an understanding that you couldn’t possibly get from thousands of images or even videos of puppies. This type of increased understanding will enhance technology’s capabilities in hopes of eventually being transferred to any kind of application of AI. Even a non-physical system, like Siri or Alexa, can eventually possess that same contextual understanding.
While I’m realistic about the challenge of achieving artificial general intelligence, I believe that even a small degree of true human understanding should drastically improve the capabilities of numerous AI systems — and our interactions with them as users.
How do you think this might change the world?
Once an artificial intelligence system has been exposed to the real world, the knowledge and understanding it has gained can be transferred to more static systems. That means that the knowledge an AI system gleans from its sensory pod experience can be transferred to cloud-based systems like Alexa and Siri, enormously improving the quality of the user experience.
Another example is a computerized call system, such as a bank’s, which could actually comprehend and address the varied and nuanced needs of customers rather than following a fixed script. Gone would be the days of repeating, “representative,” until the robot connects you to a human being.
But the possibilities do not end there. Artificial general intelligence technology can have a transformative impact on all kinds of real-world experiences. Consider a self-driving car. Right now, it might recognize a pedestrian as an obstacle it should yield to. But it can’t recognize that a pedestrian is a human, just as the driver or passenger in another car is also a human.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
Ethical considerations surrounding AI need to focus on bad human actors, rather than nefarious machines. “Mad machine” scenarios, in which advanced AI technology will lead to Terminator-esque worldwide destruction, are simply unrealistic. This technology at large won’t be programmed with concepts like greed, so it won’t feel a need to compete with the human race.
The potential for harm in AI lies not with the technology itself but with the humans who own and operate this technology. Even the most advanced future AI systems won’t be interested in acquiring wealth and power unless they are programmed that way. They won’t be interested in our land, our food, or most of our resources (except energy — we might compete over energy). But future systems won’t be competitive at all unless they are programmed to be, and that could be a serious error.
What are the 5 things that most excite you about the robotics industry? Why?
When I think of robots, I first think of autonomous mobile devices in a real-world setting. Industrial robots and automated machine tools are an important facet of today’s world too but are outside the scope of this conversation.
- Boston Dynamics’ robotic technology that demonstrates remarkable agility and dexterity.
- Faster, cheaper hardware in cameras, sensors, and actuators and improved batteries will make robots more ubiquitous and useful for tackling a wide range of problems.
- Better feedback and control software can make cheaper actuators operate more like today’s expensive ones, allowing robots to react and navigate more easily to their surroundings and increasing their use and acceptance in society. Consider that our arms and hands are not particularly precise in absolute terms but are remarkably capable because of feedback and the mind that controls them.
- Many advances in software have made systems more “human-friendly” and these abilities will be applied to autonomous robots in the coming years. Consider that being able to speak commands to your mobile phone would have been science fiction a decade or two ago. AGI-related improvements in speech comprehension will make future voice-activated systems ubiquitous and might even make keyboards obsolete.
- We are poised for a breakthrough in which robots will transform from being novelties to becoming a part of our everyday lives.
What concerns you most about the robotics industry? Why?
There aren’t many people thinking about the longer-term impacts of the decisions we are making today. It is obvious that any technological breakthrough that becomes possible and commercially viable will be created. So the question is not whether future AGIs are a good idea, the question is whether we want them built in accordance with our ideas of freedom or created by a totalitarian state which will use them as a tool to expand its empire.
Further, we should consider the large-scale impacts of increasingly advanced AI technology. What will happen when virtually all jobs can be done faster and cheaper by computers and robots? What limits do we want to put on our future machines? How will we create a future which will benefit all mankind, rather than just a select few who own the robots? How can we steer AI development in a way that achieves our short-term objectives without setting ourselves up for a future calamity?
All these questions are worthy of serious consideration and discussion. Our current level of indecision and inaction on climate change, for example, doesn’t bode well for our future. We may be forced to look to our machines to bail us out.
As you know, there is an ongoing debate between prominent scientists (personified as a debate between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg) about whether advanced AI has the potential to pose a danger to humanity in the future. What is your position about this?
Risks certainly exist with any new technology, but these need to be taken in the context of other risks which we accept every day. In my book, Will Computers Revolt?, I discuss four possible scenarios of a future where machines are smarter and more able than humans, ranging from the utopian to the catastrophic. Technologies, in and of themselves, are not inherently good or evil. Instead, they are powerful and they can be pressed into service by individuals seeking to improve mankind — or by others seeking only great wealth and power.
My expertise is in product security, so I’m particularly interested in this question. In today’s environment, hackers break into the software running the robotics, for ransomware, to damage brands or for other malicious purposes. Based on your experience, what should manufacturing companies do to uncover vulnerabilities in the development process to safeguard their robotics?
When it comes to the development of autonomous robots specifically, the following measures are critical for uncovering vulnerabilities:
- Secure communications — particularly since autonomous robotic systems always have a significant wireless component.
- Write software from the ground up with security in mind.
- Use internal operating fail-safes, like watch-dog timers and physical performance limits.
- Be prepared in the event of hacking, on numerous levels, or another security breach. As security obstacles become more sophisticated, methods of circumventing them must keep up.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career In The Robotics Industry?
Below are five aspects that will help create a successful career in the development of autonomous robots specifically. There are lots of other elements that would be useful for a successful career in programming industrial robots.
- Software, software, software. These days, most robotic projects are software projects with a mechanical component, not the other way around. AI may not help much with the mechanical aspects of robotics because many mechanical problems can be solved efficiently with a knowledge of physics, forces, and feedback, rather than machine learning.
- Understand real-time systems. Robots are necessarily real-time systems and programming them is a different process and requires different skills than in IT. Schools may not teach it, but a $20 robotics experiment kit and a few weeks of experimentation will enhance your skills.
- Learn the capabilities and limitations of microcontrollers. Even a few weeks of trying to make an Arduino or ESP32 processor work to control a consumer-level mechanical system will be time well-spent and university classes will seldom create this kind of opportunity.
- Learn control systems theory. University classes in robotics or control systems typically will give a background in how to control any real-world system. The fluid motion of a Boston Dynamics robot is not as simple as it might seem at first blush.
- Pursue a background in physics and electronics. My undergraduate degree was in Electrical Engineering and even after all these years and changes in technology, the underlying physics and electronics haven’t changed much.
As you know, there are not that many women in this industry. Can you advise what is needed to engage more women in the robotics industry?
I think the key to moving ahead is ensuring that women and girls have access to the right education and skills, and from an early age. What we need is the equivalent of Title IX for STEM education to ensure that women are afforded equal support in the pursuit of these disciplines and equal opportunities in the field.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Over the past 70 years, both AI and robotics have made great strides but have yet to achieve human-level performance. This does not mean that human-level performance is impossible. In fact, with the current market forces driving development, human-level and super-human-level performance is inevitable. As a result, we’re now faced with a pivotal question: Who do we want to be in control of these powerful systems and machines? Do we want to be in control, or will we unintentionally cede control to those with totalitarian ambitions?
It’s time to start thinking and talking seriously about the future we want for mankind and for our relationship with the systems we create.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I’ve provided links to some of my pages below:
FutureAI’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/FutureAIGuru
Facebook page for FutureAI’s Brain Simulator Software: https://www.facebook.com/groups/brainsim/
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.
About The Interviewer: David Leichner is a veteran of the Israeli high-tech industry with significant experience in the areas of cyber and security, enterprise software and communications. At Cybellum, a leading provider of Product Security Lifecycle Management, David is responsible for creating and executing the marketing strategy and managing the global marketing team that forms the foundation for Cybellum’s product and market penetration. Prior to Cybellum, David was CMO at SQream and VP Sales and Marketing at endpoint protection vendor, Cynet. David is the Chairman of the Friends of Israel and Member of the Board of Trustees of the Jerusalem Technology College. He holds a BA in Information Systems Management and an MBA in International Business from the City University of New York.