As investor interest in artificial intelligence continues to grow, will that determine economic competitiveness? China is betting on it, but don’t count out the vibrant U.S. startup scene just yet. Even as the U.N. debates about bans on autonomous weapons, law enforcement authorities and militaries around the world are looking to new applications for drones and robots.
Robotics Business Review has partnered with Abishur Prakash at Center for Innovating the Future to provide its readers with cutting-edge insights into recent developments in international robotics, AI, and unmanned systems. Are you ready to be updated?
Chinese AI startups get strong funding support
Robotics development: Last year, Chinese AI startups raised more money than their U.S. counterparts. Chinese AI startups raised around $4.9 billion, compared with $4.4 billion raised by U.S. AI startups. Overall, funding for new AI companies increased 150% globally, rising from $4 billion in 2016 to over $10 billion in 2017.
Geopolitical significance: Funding is a new arena for the intensifying rivalry between the U.S. and China around machine learning and related technologies. They and other nations see AI and automation as the keys to economic success.
It is important to note that funding for startups is separate from overall funding. Between 2012 and 2016, Chinese AI firms raised $2.6 billion, compared with $17.9 billion in the U.S. It’s also important to note that the U.S. has 2,905 AI firms, compared with 709 in China.
However, none of this should take away from the fact that China is working hard to catch up to and eventually surpass the U.S. as the world’s leading AI power. As geopolitical power is increasingly defined by AI, this should scare the U.S. and its businesses developing and using AI.
While agencies such as the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) monitor Chinese investments in American AI companies, investments aren’t the only way in which China is growing its AI clout. China is actively taking its AI to other parts of the world in a way U.S. firms aren’t.
Last year, Hikvision, a Chinese video surveillance firm, sold an intelligent traffic management solution to Yangon, Myanmar.
Last month, JD.com, one of the largest e-commerce retailers in China, opened its first automated store in Jakarta, Indonesia. This follows Alibaba, which is supplying Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with its City Brain AI service.
Equally important is domestic policy to protect China’s edge. For example, only 14 Chinese firms are allowed to map Chinese roads in high definition, a prerequisite to a potential market of 30 million self-driving cars. Foreign car companies are not allowed to do so.
It isn’t just that China is taking its AI to other countries or using policy in ways other countries aren’t. Other countries are also approaching China with unique deals.
This week, China’s largest insurance company, the People’s Insurance Company of China (PICC), signed a deal with VeChain, a Singaporean blockchain startup, to bring blockchain and AI to the Chinese insurance landscape. Such deals are not being signed in other countries.
Beating the U.S. in AI startup funding may be a small win in a much larger competition but it is another sign that China is serious about its AI ambitions. If the U.S. and other countries don’t create their own competitive strategies, then China is likely to accomplish its goal of becoming the world’s leading AI power by 2030.
Smaller nations turn to robots for self-defense
Robotics development: Estonia, Latvia, and Finland are jointly developing land-based drones to improve defenses amid division in the European Union (EU) and uncertainty in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The three countries, working under the European Defense Agency’s Permanent Structure Cooperation Framework (PESCO), have earmarked $35 to $47 million for this program. Other countries, such as Germany, France, and Belgium, have expressed interest in joining it.
Geopolitical significance: In the past several decades, nations were dependent on a handful of countries to supply their militaries and police forces. Now, in the age of AI and robotics, nations are able to take defense into their own hands.
While Estonia, Latvia, and Finland work on autonomous ground vehicles, Germany is working on cybersecurity. The German government plans to establish a cybersecurity agency, modeled after the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), over the next five years. The goal is to ensure that Germany isn’t dependent on other countries for its cybersecurity.
And, all the way in South America, the Colombian government is testing aerial drones to drop herbicide on coca crops, which are used in cocaine production. With just 10 drones, hundreds of acres of coca plants have already been destroyed.
In Eastern Europe, a startup in Ukraine is developing a military drone that can be equipped with a grenade launcher so it can be used against armored vehicles and other enemy targets. It can attack targets at a distance of 10 kilometers.
A similar trend is emerging in Japan as well, which has traditionally relied on the U.S. as its main defense partner. Japan’s military is set to begin trials of an AI system that can identify foreign vessels to reduce the chances they will infringe on Japanese territory.
Meanwhile, Japanese police are testing an AI system that can predict money laundering, car thefts, and terrorist attacks. All of this points to a huge shift in approaches to national security. Through robotics and AI, defense procurement is becoming localized.
U.N. unable to get consensus on autonomous weapons
Robotics development: The Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), a division of the United Nations, will hold its third meeting on lethal autonomous weapons (LAWs). The meeting will involve discussions and debates between 125 member countries on how to best regulate and control so-called killer robots.
Geopolitical significance: The meeting has already stirred up tensions, with the U.S., Russia and a few other countries blocking a consensus on autonomous weapons. This should come as no surprise to anyone paying attention to comments these countries have been making.
A few weeks before the CCW meeting, Russian media reported that Moscow was ready to develop a “political declaration” for killer robots so long as there was no blanket ban. Last November, Russia said it would ignore any ban on autonomous weapon systems, echoing what I told Newsweek would happen a few weeks earlier.
Despite calls for an international framework around autonomous weapons, more nations are developing such systems than limiting them.
That same month, China announced it was developing submarines that could operate around the world, completely autonomously. Among other things, they could carry out suicide attacks on enemy vessels.
For defense companies, the lack of global cooperation around autonomous weapons is a huge opportunity. Almost every country is looking to procure killer robots in some manner.
As a global ban falls short, countries are taking policy into their own hands. This could create a volatile landscape for defense firms and governments as nations move in different directions.
For example, South Africa, which had the first error in autonomous weapons back in 2007, has said that it will not be using killer robots. One of the main reasons it cited is that, unlike humans who know when other humans are surrendering on the battlefield, a robot might not know when humans are surrendering.
Is South Africa alone, or will other countries around the world also ban autonomous weapons? The answer could transform the future of warfare — and the defense industry.