Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

Amazon Secret Robot Event Boasts VR, Ax Making, Wood Splitting

  • Robots, Jeff Bezos mingle with crowd of technology experts
  • Web retailer known for hosting secretive industry conferences

Robotics companies and academics descended on a resort in Palm Springs this week for an invitation-only conference organized by Amazon.com Inc. to bring together experts in artificial intelligence, robotics, home automation and space exploration.

At the event, held at the Parker Palm Springs, there were robotic arms dueling with light sabers from Star Wars, seminars about imbuing machines with human values and a celebrity appearance by film director Ron Howard, known for his portrayal of Richie Cunningham in the sitcom Happy Days. Jeff Bezos mingled with attendees; one said he drank single-malt whiskey with Amazon’s chief executive officer.

Representatives from companies such as Rethink Robotics, Toyota Motor Corp., and others attended the conference, called MARS, short for Machine-Learning (Home) Automation, Robotics and Space Exploration. Academics came from universities including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California at Berkeley and ETH Zurich, people familiar with the matter said.

“Seeing old roboticist friends and meeting new cool machine intelligence and space people @ MARS conference sponsored by @amazon,” Helen Greiner, the co-founder of iRobot and CEO of CyPhy Works, wrote in a tweet published on Monday. Greiner didn’t respond to an e-mail request for comment.

AI, Robots, Space

The event brings together experts in various disciplines relevant to Amazon and Bezos’s space-exploration ambitions. The world’s biggest online retailer has tens of thousands of “Kiva” robots in its delivery warehouses representing a big investment in efficiency. One of its best-selling hardware devices, the Amazon Echo, uses a voice-enabled artificial-intelligence platform to perform tasks such as dimming lights, ordering pizzas and paying bills. Bezos, who is worth $50 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, is investing in commercial space exploration through his own company, called Blue Origin.

Amazon is typically secretive about its technology, publishing few papers and rarely giving talks at conferences. Amazon in the past has held exclusive meetings, called Campfire, with authors once a year in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Attendees at the MARS event made their own axes and split wood, tried virtual-reality devices and had grapes and drinks served on tables set atop Kiva robots, according to photos of the event posted on the social media account of a UCLA professor.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE