July 21, 2017      

Robotic advancements are occurring worldwide on multiple fronts. From artificial intelligence creating new security challenges to robots in Japan creating new malfunction paranoia to governments restricting foreign acquisitions, the world of robotics is heating up, and security policy will need to be crafted to ensure that these new technologies are used in safe and ethical ways.

Robotics Business Review has partnered with me to bring you this roundup of recent robotic advancements. Are you ready to be updated?

AI provokes security policy nightmares

Headlines have been ablaze with news that artificial intelligence can mimic the voice of anyone and can make them say things they didn’t. What made these headlines even more provocative was that the person used to demonstrate this AI was none other than former president Barack Obama. This isn’t the first instance of AI being able to copy someones voice. In April, 2017, Lyrebird, a Canadian artificial intelligence startup, showed off their technology which can “clone” anyones voice after just listening to it for a minute.

What this points to is the growing capability of artificial intelligence to challenge the security of businesses and governments around the world. Anything that uses voice recognition to verify a person is now vulnerable — such as entering a secure part of a business where R&D is being conducted. At the same time, companies are more exposed to phishing and other types of scams as groups can use AI to clone the voice of a senior executive and make phone calls that request funds be transferred.

Organizations will be forced to think about the security implications of AI that can mimic voice, and future security policy must face the possibility of fabricated audio samples. Ironically, to protect against this, it may be AI that is developed and deployed to scan voice patterns and verify whether a person is real or not.

Turning to robots for tourism, policing

East Japan Railways (JR East), one of Japan’s leading railway companies, will be setting up a robotics division called JRE Robotics Station. The goal of this robotics division is to develop robots that can perform a variety of functions (JRE has identified four categories they want to focus on).

Japanese culture is very receptive to robots being used in public places, but will security policy become necessary to ensure that robots don't act in unpredictable or dangerous ways?For example, they want robots that can assist travelers about where to go and how to navigate an area, in multiple languages, in train stations and other areas. At the same time, they want robots that can identify a thief.

The introduction of robots in train stations for tourism, policing and more, is yet another sign as to just how robots is taking off beyond the factory floor. It is the practical problems where robots are being deployed (and developed around). However, there is a challenge to robots operating in this manner, with these responsibilities. What happens when they malfunction? Recently, a security robot was found in the pond of an office complex in Washington D.C, which was seen as kind of “robot suicide”.

Working to ensure that a JRE robot doesn’t jump off the platform into an incoming train, give incorrect instructions to people, or apprehend people who aren’t shoplifting, will be critical to their success and implementation. Security policy must be created with these situations in mind, to ensure that security robots are as effective and ethical as possible.

Prepare for the new ‘robot divide’

Sutton Trust, a charity in the U.K., has published a report warning that unless there is control and regulation around artificial intelligence and robotics, the divide between the rich and poor will increase as these technologies make their way into mainstream society. This will take place because, among other things, wealthier people can re-skill themselves better.

Unfortunately, this new divide in societies around the world is likely to go unnoticed as more prominent fears, such as mass job losses, take center stage. For example, according to the Bank of England, close to 50% of all jobs in the UK could disappear to robots. It is this kind of reality that will jolt governments to take action.

With that said, as governments do regulate robots, such as introducing basic income schemes or banning certain robot-practices (i.e. automating an entire factory), it may indirectly help alleviate some of the divide fears. Only time will tell whether the developmental divide caused by AI and robots will cause a true transformation in society or only exacerbate existing problems.

Governments look to control foreign investment

Germany has approved new measures to control how companies who are not from the European Union (EU) can acquire European businesses (foreign takeovers) in strategic and critical industries. These measures include giving the German government the ability to probe and investigate certain acquisitions.

Germany has passed measures which essentially amount to a security policy for its homegrown businesses, giving them more control over takeovers from foreign companies.One of the clear targets is China, who responded to the change in Germany’s acquisition rules, by saying they were “concerned”.

Governments taking steps to control how certain countries can acquire a business reflects the growing importance of robotics. Nations want to ensure their robotics sector works for them, not someone else.

For Germany, it has already experienced foreign acquisitions, such as with Midea buying Kuka, but future limits on acquisitions can come in other parts of the world. For example, SoftBank, the Japanese multinational, is mulling investing in Makeblock, a Chinese robotics startup.

Geopolitics can come to the foray in this instance. Should China grow wary of rising Japanese investment in Chinese companies, Beijing can introduce laws that directly target Tokyo or limit foreign investment. Protecting the robotics industry in a country, could be a whole new field of security policy, and perhaps even a new reason why governments turn protectionist.

More on Global Robotics Developments:

Despite visa challenge, Afghan team proves successful

An all-girl team of six students from Afghanistan was granted entry into the United States to partake in a robotics competition after President Trump intervened. The group was initially denied entry and was going to compete via video. Alongside this, a Gambian team who was also denied later received entry.

Despite the initial challenges facing them, including only two weeks to build their robot, the team proved to be strong competitors, and won a silver medal for “courageous achievement.”

In other news related to the competition, two of the members of the Burundi robotics team reported missing after the event have been found safe after crossing into Canada, with the other members of the team also believed to be safe. The students are reported to have travelled there voluntarily, with no foul play suspected.

The granting of entry by President Trump highlights an important point. While bans and limits on immigration exist, and may be enhanced in the coming months or years, certain events and groups can become victim — events and groups that shouldn’t have. In this case it was a robotics competition and teams from Afghanistan and Gambia. Tomorrow, it could be an AI conference with speakers from Canada and China denied entry.

In the case of Afghanistan and Gambia, President Trump was there to intervene, as it was sensationalized by headlines. But other entry denials which don’t make headlines may not spark the same response from the White House, which builds on what I said last week. Robotics and artificial intelligence companies hiring talent abroad and bringing them to the US may be in for a rude awakening as immigration and security policy changes make hiring from certain countries a complex, if not impossible task.