Bart Lorang, Vikas Reddy, Jacqueline Ros and Eric Schweikardt (left to right) discuss the future of robotics and what it means for our workforce.

Boulder’s robotics leaders weigh in on what their industry means for workforce

BOULDER — The future of robotics and artificial intelligence is varied, and Boulder’s robotics leaders discussed the gamut from how politics influences views on AI to whether we’re actually living in a simulated reality at Boulder Startup Week’s Robotics & AI Founder panel.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking question from moderator Bart Lorang, managing director of v1.vc, a Boulder- and San Francisco-based venture-capital firm, was whether the reality we are in now is “base reality” — true, actual reality — or an elaborate, artificial-intelligence-driven Matrix-like simulation.

The consensus from Boulder’s AI-leaders? Maybe it doesn’t really matter what reality we’re in.

“At some point, I don’t know if it matters,” Vikas Reddy, co-founder of computer-vision company Occipital, said. “If you think about it, there’s a server out there that happens to be running a virtual machine that’s inside whatever software it is you’re running. That virtual reality is running on a real machine that works in the real world. So I can say, even if we are in a simulation at the deepest level, all the way up there’s a reality that’s ultimately there. So maybe we’re still in reality, just a couple levels deep.”

The two other founders, Jacqueline Ros of personal-safety company Revolar and Eric Schweikardt of children’s robotics company Modular Robotics, had similarly optimistic views. Ros said she thought if we were in “the matrix” we would probably have better computer-enhanced memories. Schweikardt said it probably didn’t matter, because everyone perceived reality differently.

“I think the beauty of our current base reality is we interpret it so differently,” he said. “What I see and feel is different from your reality. Whether it’s digital or analog or our own virtual reality in our brains.”

As a less theoretical topic, the panel also discussed robotics in the workforce and the pros and cons of artificial intelligence replacing human workers.

Right now, robotics is essentially limited to reasonably contained problems, Reddy said. Things such as automated cars or robots in warehouses work because they’re given certain tasks and not asked to do things beyond those tasks. Automated cars, for example, are programmed to drive, but don’t have to worry about other human jobs such as learning how to play an instrument.

But right now, we are at a stage where factory jobs are increasingly being replaced by robotics. While the United States has outsourced manufacturing to places such as China, Schweikardt said, China’s best factories have become completely people-less. In turn, the cheaper manufacturing has left China and gone to countries such as Myanmar and Vietnam, which has left China very much in the same position the United States has been. Eventually, when U.S. tech companies have more manufacturing infrastructure around them, Schweirkardt said he expected those jobs to come back to the United States.

In the meantime, Ros said she saw potential for better jobs to stem from robotics.

“If you look at Detroit, they’ve retrained the car-manufacturing people to new tech jobs,” she said. “They had to, because Detroit fell apart. Our manufacturer in Thailand has robots. What I respect about our manufacturer is they always want to invest in the local community. They brought in instructors, but not bosses, to train people. That’s the mentality we have to take. There’s also the thought that being an app developer is one of the hottest jobs now, but it didn’t exist 10 years ago. In the future, we’re going to have jobs we didn’t even think of.”