A journalist in Tokyo tests out Google Cardboard, which creates virtual reality by attaching to a us

A journalist in Tokyo tests out Google Cardboard, which creates virtual reality by attaching to a user's smartphone. (Photo: Lien Hoang)

If you’re wondering how technology will change our lives in the future, here are a few things to consider.

Companies and governments are collecting more data about us than ever before. It’s being used to make robots smarter and spread technology to the poor.

Lien Hoang tries out some of this new technology in Tokyo.

I’m sitting at my laptop, reading an article in Vietnamese. I can’t remember what “trai bi” means in English, so I search for a Vietnamese dictionary. But then I remember -- I have a translate app that can answer my question, if I just read the word out loud. OK here I go.

“I’m opening up the app on my smartphone. I hit the button that looks like a microphone and say the word. 

The app is able to understand my voice and figure out what I want to know. 

Translation is a good example of how software is getting smarter. 

Google research scientist Greg Corrado explains this to reporters at his company’s recent machine learning conference in Tokyo.

He says computers are learning, through trial and error, so now they can handle more complex things, like languages

“This is something that for translation is just getting started. I think you’ll see that moving forward, you’ll move away from having a single system that goes from French to Cantonese, and a different system that goes from Cantonese to Mandarin and they don’t have anything to do with each other,” he says, “But instead you’ll have a single, unified system where learning all together actually allows it to work much better than if you just try to do it all in pairs.”

This is all part of artificial intelligence, or machine learning, which means computers are basically robots that are getting better at thinking and making decisions. 

When US President Barack Obama visited Japan in 2014, he played football with a cheerful and very sporty robot. 

That’s the thing about robots. They’re not human, but they’re made by humans – who have good intentions. 

That’s why Google’s Eric Schmidt says we shouldn’t be worrying that computers are going to take over the world someday.

“This is a matter of science fiction,” says Schmidt, “And almost all of the science fiction movies have, at the end of the day, a bad robot and a good human being. I don’t think that’s likely because I think humans are not going to build bad robots, only movies are going to build them. That’s my own view. There are people in my industry who believe in 15 or 20 years we’ll have the kind of computer intelligence that can rival human intelligence.”

Speaking at the Tokyo tech conference, Schmidt said it makes sense that a lot of this tech boom will have a big impact in Asia, where there are talented programmers and mathematical minds. 

“I see every reason to think Asian programmers can do as well or better than American and European programmers,” he says, “After all, the majority of programming contest winners tend to be in Asia.” 

Last year, China, Japan, and South Korea filed the most patents in the world, according to Bloomberg.  

Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong also tend to do well on global innovation rankings. For more evidence, just listen to Schmidt describe one of his recent trips to South Korea.

“In Korea I spent most of my time on entrepreneurial issues. And I believe basically that -- the Korean economy has slowed down -- and I believe that the solution for Korean economic growth is more investment in entrepreneurship, especially in this area,” he says, “We had a meeting in Korea with entrepreneurs, which represented the use of machine learning in every interesting field. And I was very impressed with that.” 

Another big theme at the conference was using big data to create virtual reality or VR. 

Steve Seitz, an engineering professor at the University of Washington explains. 

“For VR the challenge is really, how do you capture the world in such a way that someone else can experience it and feel like they’re there? And that involves a lot of challenges both in 3D modeling of the world and so that’s sort of a different branch of computer vision,” says Seitz, “And then on the display side, the challenges are, how do we stream the content effectively over the internet to potentially clients who don’t have a lot of bandwidth?”

Developing parts of Asia have plenty of people without a lot of bandwidth, but that doesn’t stop them from getting online. 

Smartphones are getting cheaper and cheaper, many of them produced by Asian countries from Korea to Taiwan. 

This helps people stay connected, at a low cost. Schmidt says that’s important, because he thinks one of the best things companies can do, is bring technology to the poor, and reduce income inequality.

“Because after all, they don’t have a school system, they don’t have a police system that works, they don’t have a way of making money, they don’t have a bank,” he says, “But if we can get them inexpensive computational devices at a bandwidth cost they can afford, remember these are people who live on $1 a day, so it’d have to be far cheaper than it is today, then we will have made a huge contribution.”

Schmidt wants smart technology to make our lives easier. So let me use that translation technology for my sign-off.


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