I was lucky enough this week to attend the CogX Festival in Tobacco Dock, London. Billing itself as “The Festival of All Things AI, Blockchain and Emerging Technologies”, it sounded really exciting and I wasn’t disappointed.
Greeted by the sight of two autonomous race cars and a seamless registration process, I headed towards the main stage to get my bearings and listen to the welcome introduction by Charlie Muirhead and Tabitha Goldstaub, the two main organisers of the event. The conference was split into five streams, each having its own dedicated stage:
Stage 1 — Impact of AI
How AI is affecting all aspects of society
Stage 2 — The Cutting Edge
New technologies and the future of AI
Stage 3 — Blockchain
Uses and applications of Blockchain technology. It’s not just all about Bitcoin!
Stage 4 — Ethics
Ok, so we can do all kinds of things with AI but should we?
Stage 5 — Lab to Live
Getting technology out from the R&D departments into the real world
There were also exhibitions, startup companies, breakout sessions and a myriad of other things to check out. It was impossible to see every session and I can’t cover it all in this blog, so I needed to prioritise and visit the sessions that interested me the most.
A subject close to my heart is the ethics of AI and so I spent a lot of time in that stream. It’s great that we have the technology to create all kinds of things that were once consigned to Hollywood movies but the important question is should we be developing some of them at all?
An important topic of ethical discussion was raised by Tugce Bulut in the first session of the day, is the thorny topic of whether AI will lead to mass unemployment. 67% of people surveyed were concerned that artificial intelligence will take jobs away from people. Prime targets are self driving trucks, automated call centres and manual labouring. This was countered with the argument that although jobs would be removed, new ones would be created. Back in the Industrial Revolution, the textile worker who was replaced by the loom became the person who maintained the new machine.
This was followed by several interesting discussions about how to avoid media playing on the public fear of AI, being open and honest about the capabilities of technology currently available and finding a balance between freedom of expression on social media and accountability.
A session that interested me in a different stream (Lab to Live) was how AI can contribute to the creative industries, jokes, poetry, theatre and music. My chatbot Mitsuku has won The Funniest Computer Ever contest in both the years it ran. However, this was back in 2012 and 2013, so I wanted to see how things had changed in the last 5 or 6 years.
One of the subjects of discussion was theatre and whether an AI could write a play. Josie Rourke, Artistic Director of Donmar Warehouse had created a script in which she attempted to discuss Hamlet with a chatbot. Two actors read the play and to my absolute amazement, the chatbot she had chosen was Mitsuku! I recognised her responses after the first line and it was fun to see the audience laugh along as the male actor attempted to discuss the finer points of Hamlet with Mitsuku.
After the session, I introduced myself to the panel members and the author very kindly let me have a copy of the script. It was a first for Mitsuku to be included in a play and I was very happy with her performance. Next stop, the Oscars!
An interesting topic then followed about AI creating music and copyright. Who owns the copyright to a piece of music created by a machine? The traditional period of a piece of music becoming copyright free is around 70 years after the death of the author but how could this work of the author is a computer? Apparently, this is still a grey legal area.
After lunch, was a session I was looking forward to immensely. Should AI and robots pretend to be human?
To balance the argument, Joanna Bryson and Alan Winfield were on the “No” side. David Hanson, creator of the famous Sophia robot was firmly on the “Yes” side and Will Jackson, the founder of Engineered Arts was on the “Depends on the context” side.
The conversation became a little heated at times as this naturally evoked very strong opinions from all sides but still managed to remain civil. The panel moderator’s use of yellow and red cards proved useful at times.
The main point was the one of deception. Sophia was recently given citizenship of Saudi Arabia and as such, has more rights than actual women living there. This was ridiculed by Joanna and Alan, comparing this act to giving toasters and washing machines equal rights.
David defended it by saying it was something he was unaware of at the time but made it quite clear that Sophia wasn’t alive and it was important to educate people on the current state of technology.
The final few sessions of the day that caught my eye were the ones concerning the future of chatbots.
There are two types of chatbots, the task oriented ones (such as a pizza delivery bot) and the ones designed for companionship (Mitsuku and Xiaoice by Microsoft). There seems to be a huge rise in the number of companion bots, as many people turn to them often because they feel comfortable talking to a bot about topics they wouldn’t like to discuss with another person, for fear of being judged (marital affairs, problems at work, suicidal thoughts). The bots often act almost like a confessional booth at a church, allowing people to talk freely and in confidence and is something I see reflected daily in Mitsuku’s conversations.
The knowledgeable panel had representatives from Amazon Alexa, Google Home, Rasa, Margot the Wine Bot, “Spot”- A bot to report workplace abuse and our very own Lauren Kunze from Pandorabots.
The key takeaway from these sessions was that voice interface will take over from text only and emotional detection would become more important when talking to chatbots.
After the final session, there was time for networking and drinks before the evening’s Gala Awards Dinner hosted by Charlie Muirhead and English comedian/impressionist Rory Bremner.
It was an amazing event with incredible food and company, which was made even better by some of the guys on my table winning an award for their work in drones. Rory Bremner had the audience in hysterics with his impressions and it was a really fun night.
For the second day of the conference, I attended a presentation about how important it was to design a consistent personality for a chatbot. Many people working independently of each other will soon develop an inconsistent, mixed personality bot, as each developer adds their own preferences and different ways of talking. Top tip: Design any personality traits for your bot BEFORE starting to code.
A team of girls from The Piggott School near Manchester, gave a presentation as they had recently won a national competition based around cybersecurity. They had beaten hundreds of other teams to win and it was impressive that children, especially girls, were interested in this mostly male subject.
I then wanted to make sure I checked out the many robots that were on display on the lower floor of the conference location.
The audience were allowed to interact with the robots, which led to some amusing incidents as Robothespian started singing and Pepper started to jam out to rock tunes! There was also the opportunity to see what it feels like to be a robot for a while, as a VR headset allowed you to control Pepper as it interacted with the ever growing crowd of onlookers.
I also had the opportunity to ask one of Sophia’s developers about the true nature of the robot. He assured me it isn’t thinking and is basically a chatbot in a robot body which was great to hear, as there is so much misinformation about it on the news.
Finally, I attended a workshop on advanced conversational design which consisted of some great speakers explaining difficulties they had faced when creating their products. A large part was due to public expectations of the chatbots being way too high for the technology currently available. Unfortunately, I had to leave the workshop before the conclusion which was a great shame.
This is the first time I had been to a CogX conference and was very impressed with both the subjects under discussion, the quality and knowledge of the speakers and also the side exhibits. It was amazing to meet up with old friends from the world of AI and to make new ones. It’s impossible to cover in detail everything I saw, never mind all the presentations I didn’t get chance to see and I’m greatly looking forward to next year’s conference.
Roll on CogX 2019!
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