Robotics & Geopolitics: Copying China’s Facial Recognition Model; Rethinking Industry 4.0


November 09, 2018      

Artificial intelligence will affect every industry, and it has already become a new arena in international rivalries. Even as AI advances help robots and drones operate autonomously, countries have to decide where to put their focus, from facial recognition and manufacturing to national security.

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?

Australia follows China’s lead for facial recognition

Robotics development: The Australian state of New South Wales said will use facial recognition technology to identify people who are committing crimes. The National Facial Biometric Matching Capability will allow the state and federal government to access pictures used for driver’s licenses, passports, and other documents and feed these images into the facial recognition system.

Geopolitical significance: Australia is on a facial recognition drive. The airports of Sydney and Canberra have conducted trials of AI to reduce boarding time and assess travelers.

The city of Perth is using AI with cameras in its central business district to identify “troublemakers.”

Australian schools could soon have facial recognition, with one firm offering software to track and locate students. Meanwhile, future jaywalkers could be caught on camera and identified with facial recognition software.

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because this all eerily similar to what’s taking place in China. From catching criminals and automating check in at airports to tracking students at schools, China is already doing all of this. What’s taking place in Australia is a sign of a shift in geopolitics.

As relations tighten, Australia appears to be copying China’s model when it comes to AI applications. This is an example of the world no longer following the U.S. lead in technology.

While the world watches which countries use Chinese technology, the copying of how China uses robotics and machine learning is equally important. For instance, the biggest obstacle that Canberra faces to deploying facial recognition everywhere is regulatory, not technology.

Earlier this year, banned cameras produced by Hikvision and Dahua, which have allegedly acted as spies for China, were caught being used by Australia’s government. Australia is dependent on Chinese technology, even if it doesn’t want to be.

Australia’s federal government has proposed laws for facial recognition, but critics have said they would conflict with human-rights and privacy rules.

The U.S. is also deploying facial recognition systems at its border with Mexico, raising similar concerns. And even Walmart is thinking about using AI to track customers, prompting privacy questions.

As Australia mimics what China is doing with AI and robotics, a new geopolitical challenge emerges for nations like the U.S., India, Russia, and Germany: How do they get countries like Australia to copy them instead?

In Germany, Industry 4.0 dies a slow death

Robotics development: The general secretary of the Social Democratic Party, one of the main political parties in Germany, has warned that the country must invest billions more in AI if it wants to be competitive with the U.S. and China. Right now, Germany is far behind when it comes to having a leading AI ecosystem.

Geopolitical significance: Just a few years ago, “Industry 4.0” made headlines. Centered around industrial robots and physical machines driving manufacturing, many assumed that countries that led in Industry 4.0 would have the strongest economies in the future.

Berlin at night


Germany’s government earmarked 500 million euros ($567 million U.S.) in 2015 for Industry 4.0. But now Germany, and a range of other nations, such as South Korea and Japan, are realizing that Industry 4.0 can take them only so far.

Politicians in Germany now face critics saying that their notion of industrialization isn’t holding up against the global AI race. Even as German policies and investments shift to AI, can they shift the country from its economic bedrock of manufacturing?

At the same time, if Berlin gets serious about AI, it could put Germany in direct competition with China, the U.S., the U.K., Russia, and the rest of the European Union.

Germany has made some investments in AI, such as signing a machine-learning agreement with Canada, being selected by Amazon for an AI research center, and testing facial recognition at train stations.

If the country wants to become a true AI leader, it must go beyond this. But, unlike in the past, when Germany could have used its economic size and political weight, when it comes to AI, Germany will have to compete directly with its neighbors and allies. The death of Industry 4.0 may give birth to a new German economic design.

Military robots emerge in different ways

Robotics development: The Russian air force is looking to automate the roles of Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) or mobile fire controllers (MFCs). These soldiers sit in forward positions on battlefields, sometimes even in enemy territory, and direct air strikes. This vital role could soon be done by “automated forward air controllers,” who could be attached to ground robots and drones.

These automated systems would monitor an area, identify an enemy (perhaps with facial recognition), and communicate the coordinates to relevant forces. They could identify what kind of threats exists and which weapons to use. They could tag threats with lasers so smart bombs can destroy them.

Geopolitical significance: The automation of the Russian military is well under way. And it points to a different way that autonomous machines might emerge in military uses. Instead of deploying “killer robots” from the get-go, nations could start automating logistical and supportive roles first.

For example, in Israel, a senior general has said that by 2030, one-third of all ground forces will be unmanned. Most of these vehicles are likely to be transport and patrol vehicles.

Russia is also taking a novel way toward actually developing military robots. Instead of relying solely on defense firms, Russia wants to “outsource” the design of military robots to local universities. The Russian ministry of defense is already working on a plan called “Robotics for Military and Special Purposes” to make this a reality.

As other nations pursue a more aggressive posture, they are also developing autonomous weapons. China is working on AI-controlled submarines and stealthy drones, and the Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment (CODE) project and others at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

This may push Russia and others to focus on autonomous weapons rather than logistical and support robots, giving rise to a new kind of arms race.

Or perhaps Russia is thinking ahead of most countries and is simply laying down the foundation for logistical/support robots that could also act as combat robots.

After all, an unmanned ground vehicle, identifying threats in enemy territory, could also be armed. Or the fighter jet it communicates with could be autonomous.

As world powers pursue military robots to give them an edge, every nation may have the same objective, but they are taking different paths to reach it.