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AI is running circles around robotics

By Jacob Stern

04 Apr 2023 · 5 min read

Editor's Note

Recent AI breakthroughs have sparked fears of a robot apocalypse. But robots are still far behind when it comes to interacting with the physical world, writes The Atlantic.

When people imagine the AI apocalypse, they generally imagine robots. The android assassins of the Terminator franchise. The humanoid helpers of I, Robot. The Cylon armies of Battlestar Galactica. But the robot-takeover scenario most often envisioned by science fiction is not exactly looming. Recent and explosive progress in AI—along with recent and explosive hype surrounding it—has made the existential risks posed by the technology a topic of mainstream conversation. Yet progress in robotics—which is to say, machines capable of interacting with the physical world through motion and perception—has been lagging way behind. “I can’t help but feel a little envious,” said Eric Jang, the vice president of AI at the humanoid-robotics company 1X, in a talk at a robotics conference last year. And that was before the arrival of ChatGPT.

Large language models are drafting screenplays and writing code and cracking jokes. Image generators, such as Midjourney and DALL-E 2, are winning art prizes and democratizing interior design and producing dangerously convincing fabrications. They feel like magic. Meanwhile, the world’s most advanced robots are still struggling to open different kinds of doors. As in actual, physical doors. Chatbots, in the proper context, can be—and have been—mistaken for actual human beings; the most advanced robots still look more like mechanical arms appended to rolling tables. For now, at least, our dystopian near future looks a lot more like Her than M3GAN.

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