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August 18, 2017      

Is the world ready for an arms race including intelligent missiles? Job fears have led to truck drivers, a significant portion of the U.S. workforce, to start pushing back against driverless vehicles. And the country with the highest robot density, or number of robots per 10,000 human workers, uses tax policy to slow its pace of industrial automation.

Robotics Business Review has teamed up with me to bring you this roundup of noteworthy developments in global robotics, unmanned systems, and artificial intelligence. Are you ready to be updated?

Russia turns to AI for new missiles

Last month, the chief executive of Tactical Missiles Corp. said that the Russian weapons manufacturer is working on a missile that uses AI. According to CEO Boris Obnosov, they were inspired by the U.S. strike on Syria in April in which missiles were redirected after being launched.

The U.S. missiles were an updated version of 1991 hardware, however, begging the question of whether Russia is purposefully underplaying what it expects from these missiles. If so, it’s not alone. Last year, China unveiled plans to integrate AI into future cruise missiles, enabling these missiles to be able to conduct more “tasks” once they are launched.

Russia and China’s push to develop AI-guided missiles isn’t only a strategy to compete with the U.S. It reflects militaries’ growing dependence on using robotics and AI as part of their competitive posturing.

At the same time, these initiatives could soon lead to more autonomous weapons, which increases the need for policies that guide or restrict such warfare. Autonomous tanks and drones are one thing. Longer-range autonomous missiles are something else entirely.

Nidec ramps up Japan’s robotic drive

Nidec Corp., which produces many of the motors found in hard disks and other electronics hardware, plans to begin producing industrial robots. The Kyoto, Japan-based company said it will test its robots in its own factories to help it meet a goal of having no overtime for human workers by 2020. Nidec also plans to build systems including AI.

This is just one example of what many companies around the world are doing. They’re developing their own robots in-house, testing them in their own factories, and then offering them to the world. And this should jolt all industrial automation suppliers, as their business models could be upended.

At the same time, more companies developing and deploying robotics could lead to more job fears in manufacturing, if more employment for engineers. Japan has long been a leader in robotics, so businesses and governments should watch if Nidec’s initiative is part of a larger industry shift.

Unions take aim at self-driving vehicles

The Teamsters Union, which has more than 1.3 million members between the U.S. and Canada, has lobbied policy makers in the U.S. to exempt commercial trucks from new laws regarding self-driving trucks. The legislation would raise the cap on how many vehicles would be allowed to omit “common features” such as steering wheels.

If successful, the bill would raise the cap from 2,500 vehicles a year today to 100,000 vehicles per year. The Teamsters aren’t the first union to express job fears. Earlier this year, Unite called on the British government to begin creating policies to guide robotics adoption by businesses and reduce job losses.

While unions worldwide can push for new policies, more oversight, and promises from employers, the truth is that unions don’t have much power in the face of accelerating automation. How will unions persuade employers to keep human workers in certain positions and not deploy robots or AI?

South Korea unveils first part of a ‘robot tax’ in reaction to job fears

More than a year ago, I predicted in Forbes the idea that South Korea would launch a robot tax to deal with the challenges robotics will create and address geopolitical competition from China. Now, South Korea appears to be moving in this direction, with Seoul reducing tax incentives for those investing in robotics to “slow down” the explosion of automation in the country.

In other words, South Korea’s government has made the first move in using tax policy in reaction to job fears. And this comes in a country that has the highest robot density in the world and is spearheading some of the most cutting-edge robotics and AI innovations in the industry.

If Seoul is looking to slow down robots, then it means one of two things. Either, South Korea knows what it is doing and the tax incentive reduction is part of a long-term strategy to regulate robotics. Or, Seoul is in panic mode, as robots and job fears, financial crisis, and geopolitical instability converge and put new and unprecedented stress on the country.

More on Global Robotics, Geopolitics, and Job Fears:

U.S. disconnects from China’s drone network

The U.S. Army is banning the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from Dajiang Innovations Science and Technology Co., or DJI. The Shenzhen, China-based company is a major supplier of consumer drones.

The U.S. military claimed that DJI’s drones could have cyber vulnerabilities allowing hackers to take control of them. Small, relatively inexpensive consumer drones have become a popular option for the U.S. Army, especially when it comes to scouting and other missions.

The U.S. Army has banned the use of DJI drones.

Shortly after the ban, DJI said it was adding a new feature that will allow its drones to have an “offline mode” whereby drones would store data locally instead of on a server.

Drones are increasingly found on the front lines of modern warfare. Recently, an Iranian drone “buzzed” a U.S. warship twice in the Persian Gulf, and an amateur UAV landed on the U.K.’s newest aircraft carrier. Drones have become one more way to showcase military strength or risk, alongside or even replacing human-piloted fighter jets, warships, or large armies.

The Pentagon and other defense agencies will need to determine whether such bans are a first step in a broader strategy. Could the U.S. government use this to spur domestic innovation and investment in consumer drones? If so, it could lead to a new round of competition between the U.S. and China.

At the same time, the DJI ban reflects growing suspicions in Western capitals about Chinese businesses, government control, and foreign policy. Germany had second thoughts after Midea Group’s purchase of KUKA AG. Might trade restrictions spread to Chinese tech giants such as Xiaomi, Huawei, or Alibaba next?

Editor’s Note: Abishur Prakash will speak about robotics, AI, and IoT security at RoboBusiness 2017 next month in Santa Clara, Calif.