8 essentials for spending 8 hours in Zellerbach Hall — featuring a commentary on TC AI + Robotics

Two dark haired young women and a dark haired young man pose for a photo.
Neha (left) with Akhil Padmanabha and Megan Handley, who are also Fung Fellows, at TC AI + Robotics.

Spending eight hours in one place is never fun — unless you find yourself at the TechCrunch Sessions AI + Robotics!

Today, I’ll be sharing eight things that make it easier to spend eight hours in Zellerbach Hall. But more importantly, I’ll be discussing what went down at the TC Sessions AI + Robotics Conference in UC Berkeley on Tuesday, March 3, 2020.

[1] Coffee (lots of it) — who doesn’t love some caffeine in the morning? and the afternoon? and maybe at night…

This year’s TC Sessions AI + Robotics event featured many impressive speakers, including CEOs and CTOs from top companies like NVIDIA, Sony Technologies, Boston Dynamics, and Walt Disney Imagineering, just to name a few. The program featured panels on artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, as well as product demos and reveals from new startups. Robots were scattered across the lobby of Zellerbach, as startups displayed their prototypes. From drones to automated tennis-retrieving robot, these robots encompassed almost all disciplines and fields.

[2] A nice comfy chair — it’s easy when Zellerbach has such nice cushioning…

Live Demo of Boston Dynamics’ newest robot.

Leaders in the robotics field — both research and industry — were also represented at the conference, specifically with Stanford Robotics and Boston Dynamics. However, I think I can speak for everyone when I say that some of the most interesting robots showcased were those that are currently being utilized in unique fields. Agriculture was a distinctive field in robotics that seemed to be a common theme throughout the conference. With companies like Burro and Farmwise, which aim to help farmers increase their efficiency by using robots, the social impact of robotics seemed like a realistic goal. Another panel focused solely on four different companies that work in the realm of construction and how they use robots to reduce human labor and increase accuracy of construction projects.

[3] Comfortable clothing (which I was not wearing) — let’s just say that one perk of being in tech field is that business casual leans heavily towards the casual.

There were definitely some interesting panelists and moments in the conference that really made you stop and think. For example, in response to a question regarding the potential for deaths in the testing of self-driving vehicles, the CEO of IKE, Jur Van Den Berg, stated, “Only a few people have died” — and shrugged. Another one of my favorites was Mark Pauline, the Founder and Director of SRL (Survival Research Labs), who casually slipped into conversation during his panel that “a good audience is a captive audience.” These two examples are only the very extreme cases of what was said at the event and are not to be evaluated as the general tone of the conference.

Photo of the inside of zellerbach hall.
Startups lined the edges of the 2nd floor of Zellerbach Hall.

[4] A computer — if you’re at TC Sessions AI + Robotics, there’s no reason you shouldn’t have a computer on you…

To my genuine surprise, there was a strikingly large amount of conversation regarding the intersectionality of philosophy and developing technologies. It’s no debate that there’s a large ethical argument when it comes to the role AI will eventually play in our society. This was best addressed by UC Berkeley professor Stuart Russel. In his book Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control, he argues that AI will eventually lead to doom unless we, as engineers, re-evaluate how we assess and build AI algorithms.

Another important, yet undervalued point that was repeatedly mentioned throughout the various panels was robot aesthetics. Thanks to popular media, when we think of robots, we are often reminded of androids similar to Honda’s ASIMO. However, robots that have human-like features are often the worst at completing a certain task. Mike Dooley, the Co-Founder and CEO of Labrador Systems, dared to ask a bold question, “How much are you willing to sacrifice the human ideal for efficient technology?” Labrador Systems works with technologies that are often interfaced with the elderly and those with specific ailments. Although aesthetics hold a certain importance, agility is often a trade-off for a human-like robot. Sometimes, this feature of agility can make all the different to a robot that works within the confines of the user’s home, for example. It is important to realize that even if the robot looks like a human, that does not mean it will operate like a human. The human body is a complex system, compromised of millions of sensors and actuators. Mirroring a system as complex as this is just not impossible in a single robot. Myths of a human-like android robot are simply user-deceptive.

[5] People-watching skills — if you’re like me, a college student who gets bored easily, then it shouldn’t be too hard for you…

A man and a women talking on stage.
Somatic CEO, Michael Levy on stage with his commercial bathroom cleaning robot.

The Fung Fellowship has driven home the importance of human-centered design and the role it plays in the product development process. This was showcased with many of the products revealed at TC Sessions AI + Robotics. With robots working out in the field, whether that be a user’s home, bathroom or even a farm, it is important to consider their effectiveness and usefulness to the users it supports, especially during the design process.

[6] Stretch breaks — because let’s be honest, who likes sitting down in one seat for 8 hours straight…

Despite being in a room full of supposed tech nerds, I was intrigued by the constant mention of the greater issues impacting the world around tech, specifically Super Tuesday and the impending doom of the novel coronavirus. One panel during the event was fully dedicated to the concept of robot-exoticism, which was described by UC Berkeley professor Ken Goldberg, as the “cultural views of robots in such a way that exaggerates the negative and positive attributes of robots while also reinforcing old fears, fantasies, and stereotypes.”

[7] Food — I think this one’s pretty self-explanatory, who doesn’t love food?

A man and women sitting on stage.
General Manager of Robotics at Maxar Technologies, Lucy Condakchian.

As a third-year EECS student attending the conference, I would say that the TC Sessions Robotics + AI was the best experience to gain the most exposure to cunning-edge technologies in every possible field. This conference provided a platform for people of all backgrounds, from different fields, with a common interest, to join together and broaden our horizons in the realm of technology.

[8] An interest in the presentation topic (perhaps the most important) — robotics + AI, how can you not be interested?

Connect with Neha // Edited by Lauren Leung

Fellow Features is a series dedicated to showcasing the Fung Fellowship community and learning more about their lives and their stories. If you’re interested in being featured, email funginstitute@berkeley.edu!

Learn more about the Fung Fellowship at fungfellows.berkeley.edu.

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