September 01, 2017      

As Labor Day celebrations approach in North America, robot labor could replace textile workers around the world. At the same time, Estonia’s digital currency and Taiwan’s support of supply chain automation could spark investments in robotics and artificial intelligence, as well as more economic independence.

Robotics Business Review has partnered with me to bring you this week’s roundup of global developments in automation and geopolitics. Are you ready to be updated?

One robot replaces 17 human workers

In 2015, Atlanta-based SoftWear Automation launched a sewing robot called LOWRY. The LOWRY Sewbot helps find discrepancies in textile production and manufactures “easy” products such as bath mats.

SoftWear Automation Lowry

SoftWear Automation’s LOWRY Sewbot offers greater efficiency than human workers.

Now, the technology has advanced to a point where LOWRY can produce more advanced clothing, including T-shirts and jeans. The Sewbot’s production capacity is far higher than that of humans, with just one robot able to produce as many shirts per hour as 17 human workers.

Robot labor could relieve the tedium of low-wage manufacturing jobs, increase productivity, and even lead to reshoring, as a Chinese manufacturer has made a deal with SoftWear Automation that will lead to new jobs in the U.S.

However, they also demonstrate the rapid spread of automation across all industries and how they could affect millions of jobs, particularly in Southeast Asia. The question isn’t whether robots will take jobs but what meaningful work and living wages are available for people.

Governments should monitor robot labor innovations such as the LOWRY Sewbots if they want to protect their future socioeconomic and political stability.

Estonia dives in with digital currency

Estonia has unveiled plans to launch a digital currency called “Estcoin.” This will support its e-residency program by allowing foreigners to invest in the Baltic nation. This in turn could result in a new wave of foreign investment in Estonia, including in its robotics and AI startups.

Estcoin could provide new economic opportunities. First, it may enable more people to invest in Estonian startups, even if all they are investing is $10 or $100 at a time. This would be a new kind of government-backed crowdfunding and invigorate the country’s tech industry and trade.

Second, Estonia’s digital currency could pose a challenge to the Euro, the dominant currency in Europe. This raises new geopolitical issues, such as whether the EU will help Estonia with technology transfers and investments in robotics and AI projects.

American drones build Tanzanian healthcare

Zipline is in talks with Tanzania to use its aerial drones to transport medical supplies. The San Francisco-based startup made headlines last year for delivering blood supplies in Rwanda. This bodes well for African nations, where such deliveries can leapfrog over existing infrastructure or difficult terrain.

On the other hand, an analyst at the World Bank has questioned whether there are unseen benefits for the U.S. firm, such as access to new markets.

The delivery of blood supplies, needles, or medications is a major application for drones in the developing world. Not only can unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) solve expensive distribution problems, but they can also help in disaster response anywhere — such as in flood-affected Houston, where flights are currently restricted and debated.

Other African nations will likely follow Rwanda and Tanzania, as demand rises on the continent with the world’s fastest-growing population. At the same time, such demand could lead to technological dependence, as I discussed in my book.

If such UAVs break down and there isn’t enough support to repair them, it could result into serious challenges for Rwanda and other countries. Grass-roots adoption of new technologies — from drones and robots to AI — needs to be understood for both the benefits and risks they present.

More on Global AI Policy and Robot Labor:

Taiwan bets on AI

Taiwan has unveiled an ambitious plan to invest NT$1 billion ($33 million U.S.) every year from 2018 to 2021 to develop “core AI supply chain technologies.” This goal was set by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST), and it focuses on developing AI technologies for specific sectors.

MOST has set aside a total of NT$16 billion ($527 million) for AI research and development.

Taiwan has arguably lagged behind Japan, China, and South Korea in developing and adopting automation. While this new investment is an important step, it may be a last-ditch effort to redesigning an economy around Industry 4.0 and robot labor.

The success of this AI roadmap won’t just depend on Taiwan’s government, but also on outside players such as multinational corporations. Both suppliers and end users will need to be persuaded to see Taiwan as an appealing market for AI and robotics.

If Taiwan fails in this regard, then its future may be more tightly linked to China than it prefers, making AI an important variable to the future of Taiwan’s economic independence.

Who owns AI creations?

One of the areas my firm, the Center for Innovating the Future, looks at is public policy — especially when it comes to AI. A major grey area is how to deal with “works” created by AI-based systems.

Last year, a Japanese AI system wrote a book that was so advanced, it moved past the first round of a national book competition. More recently, an engineer used a neural network to “write” the next Game of Thrones book.

Google's AI has produced original works of art.In addition, a team at Rutgers University unveiled AI-created art in July. Google’s AI has created strange images and music.

All of this points to a growing need for businesses to begin thinking about how their creations will be regulated and protected. They’re no longer limited to code or business processes but could include artistic works for human consumption.

Equally important is how different nations will approach this issue. Japan may create copyright rules regarding AI works, but Finland may decide to leave it up in the air to encourage more sharing of intellectual property. Which will work better? And, which will be more beneficial to robotics companies?