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Connect With: Howard Michel, CTO, UBTech

13 Jun 2018 | ConnecTechAsia

Prior to his appointment as CTO of Shenzhen-based intelligent humanoid robots maker UBTech, Howard Michel had a long and distinguished career as a U.S. Air Force pilot, satellite launch director, engineer and educator.

What motivates you to get up in the morning?

I like the idea that I am in a position that can impact the future in a positive way, by bringing STEAM education around the world. I also like that fact that every day brings with it a different set of challenges.

You have an impressive resume. Of all the roles you’ve served in your career, which has been the most memorable and why?

I’ve had three careers: US Air Force office, university professor, and CTO of a startup company. Each has afforded different unique experiences. But if I had to choose, it would be when I was Satellite Launch Director directing the launch of US government satellites. It required a strong mix of people skills and engineering skills – think controlled release of enormous amounts of energy, or a spectacular disaster.

The late Stephen Hawkings once told the BBC that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” What are your thoughts on the matter?

People always fear new and different things because either because they don’t understand it, or they envision all of the negative consequences that might happen. AI is no different. But society adapts, and the technology is harnessed. As we develop AI technology, we are also developing societal norms for what AI can and should be. Smart people are developing standards for ethical development of AI.

UBTech’s mission is “to bring a robot into every home, and truly integrate intelligent robots into the daily lives of everyone creating a more intelligent way of life.” How close is UBTech to that goal?

“Bringing robots into every home” is already here, but the robots are simple, task-specific robots such as the Roomba vacuum. These robots are pretty basic. We are a long way from truly integrating robots into everyone’s lives, however. Basic robots need to become advanced, and advanced robots need to become robust. Robust robots would be able to accomplish multiple tasks and adapt to various, unpredictable situations. Robust robots may eventually become human-like.

Do you have a robot at home yourself?

You need to define “robot” first. I’ve got simple, “toy” robots. I don’t have an advanced robot, first because of the cost, and second because they are not yet capable of providing the services I would like. Once we can produce robots with a good cost/benefit value, I expect that I will have one. I think it will help me remain independent as I get older.

In your opinion, what are some of AI’s potential applications in future?

Science is the discovery of things that exist. In the near future, AI will advance science using techniques such as big data. AI will discover patterns in nature (or in our human created world) that will allow humans to engineer better systems. For example, AI may recognize causes of a certain disease. Engineering, that is creating things that don’t already exist, is still a challenge for AI. People will need to be involved in creating treatments based on this new understanding of the disease. AI will also allow our engineered systems to become more robust and more human-like. When that happens, the systems will be able to do more and more tasks.

You will be speaking at ConnecTechAsia Summit 2018. What do you think will be the most important takeaway for your audience?

My goal is to have them understand that AI is not magic. It is not the answer for every problem. It needs to be looked at skeptically, using a solid understanding of the evolution of technology. But with that understanding, everyone can use AI in a positive way.

What do you think is key to driving innovation in the industry?

Innovation comes from talented people, working together, and sharing ideas. Innovation can come from small startup companies where a few people, with a lot of passion and a good idea develop it. Or it can come from large companies where the management is committed to empowering the people who work in the company.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I like to take long walks into nature. This is difficult to do in Shenzhen, but I have a house on the coast in the US state of Maine that’s close to mountains and forests. When I have time, I also like to visit art museums in the world’s great cities: New York, London, Amsterdam, etc, or the gardens in cities like Kyoto.

For more insights on Machine Learning and AI, join Howard Michel at ConnecTechAsia Summit 2018’s EmergingTech Track, where he will be a Panellist for the following Discussion: “Man vs Machine – Who is the Biased One?”. Delegates may register for the Summit here.

Additionally, he will also share his thoughts on “The Past, Present, and Future of Artificial Intelligence: Separating Hype from Reality” at Big Bang 2018. View the schedule here.

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