Robots and Gen AI: Awe-inspiring or just normal?

Robots and Gen AI: Awe-inspiring or just normal?

  By Mark Jones, CEO + Chief Storyteller, ImpactInstitute 

 I met an AI-powered robot recently, and in all honesty, it was unnerving.

Standing in gargantuan foyer of The Sphere at Las Vegas – a US$2.3 billion marvel of computer science and engineering – I met Aura, a ‘female’ humanoid robot.

She has tiny little cameras in her eyes, talks to you in an oddly familiar Siri/Alexa kind of way, and uses quasi-natural hand and arm gestures.

What’s mildly alarming is how she moves her entire body to face you when you start asking questions. In the literal blink of an eye, I found myself staring into the ‘soul’ of a machine. Yikes!

It’s a classic example of two emotional extremes typically associated with AI and robotics: awe, and fear. Are these things our new overlords?

I’ve been reading, watching, and talking with experts around the world lately, and I think our preoccupation with these two extremes can distract us from the real story.

And that story isn’t hyper emotional. In fact, it’s quite predictable.


Tracking the Hype Cycle

Let’s look at Gartner’s venerable Hype Cycle. Guess what’s right there at the top of the Peak of Inflated Expectations in 2024? You guessed it, Generative AI.

I’ve tracked the Gartner Hype Cycle on and off since the late 1990 and into the early 2000s when I was a technology journalist. I think it’s fair to say that any technology sitting right at the Peak of Inflated Expectations generates the same sort of awe and worry we’re seeing today:  Technology is amazing! No, it’s not, we’re doomed! 

Here are a few examples from history to remind you:

In the early 1990s, the Internet and the World Wide Web turned up and shocked the world with promises of an ‘information superhighway’. Then in the early 2000s we got excited about Bluetooth and Wi-Fi: the computers are talking to each other!

Along came the mid-2000s and personal favourite of mine: podcasting. Radio is dead! No, it’s not!

Then in the late 2000s we got very excited about cloud computing and microblogging: Twitter is amazing! No, it’s not!

Skip forward to the 2010s and we cared about Big Data, the Internet of Things, Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence. (I must have personally hosted 7 million executive roundtables and events focused on Big Data.)

Onwards to early 2020s and we’re witnessing an acceleration of all these incredible technologies. In a sense, they’ve combined to give us blockchain, Quantum Computing, AI at the ‘edge’, and our current hyper-focus on Generative AI and Metaverse Technologies.


The point

It’s easy to be cynical when you take a larger view, but that’s neither useful nor particularly clever. Each one of these technologies changed our lives and that’s incredible.

The point is one we can easily forget amid all the hype. Each one of these new technologies eventually moved into what Gartner calls the ‘Plateau of Productivity’. They became, in a very matter-of-fact way, part of how we do business and live our lives.

For example, when was the last time you were amazed by broadband? In truth, you’re more likely unhappy it’s not fast enough!

And so too with Gen AI and robotics. It’s hard to imagine a point in time when we’ll think it’s normal to have a humanoid moving around the house, cleaning up and getting you a tasty beverage from the fridge.

Likewise, if we magically went back in time just five years ago, we couldn’t imagine a reality where Gen AI writes you an essay, creates music, video, or 3D graphics. And yet, here we are. 

The truth is all technology eventually becomes normal. We adapt, embrace the good stuff, and get rid of things that don’t work (still got a PDA? No, didn’t think so).


Where to from here?

Back to Aura and Las Vegas. I was in town to attend Adobe Summit in Las Vegas as their guest and record interviews for our podcast, The CMO Show.

Sitting in the live audience of 10,000 people it hit me that I was making a podcast (so mid-2000s!), and using a Wi-Fi connected smartphone with more compute power than the Space Shuttle to produce live speech-to-text transcriptions of keynotes about Adobe’s use of Gen AI. It was completely amazing, and at the same time, completely normal.

Of course this technology will change our lives. Of course it will make us more productive, engaged and creative than ever before. The twist is that doesn’t make it less interesting, in fact, that’s exactly why I’m interested.

How long will it take for us to get comfortable? The Gartner Hype Cycle suggests it’s about a decade. Now that I think about it, I should have asked Aura.


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