Robotics & Geopolitics: Megacities Offer Opportunity if Firms Can Overcome Foreign Policy

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August 09, 2018      

Companies that monitor geopolitical events can find opportunities for their businesses, even if those events aren’t initially positive. An attempted assassination attempt via drone, a country moving to protect its data, and countries developing megacities with high-tech infrastructure all provide companies with opportunities for growth.

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, artificial intelligence, and unmanned systems. Are you ready to be updated?

Drones used in attempted assassination

Robotics development: On Aug. 4, two explosions occurred at a military parade in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. Attending the parade was Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Maduro. The explosions were apparently the result of two drones that carried the bombs and detonated them during the parade.

Geopolitical significance: The attempted assassination on Maduro reflects the rapid emergence of drones as a weapon. This isn’t the first time that drones have been used to get near a head of state.

In April 2015, a drone with radioactive materials landed on the roof of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In December 2015, as then-U.S. President Barack Obama vacationed in Hawaii, a drone came close to his motorcade.

At the same time, dangerous groups are getting their hands on weaponized drones. In addition to the attack in Venezuela, U.S. officials are worried that Islamic State groups are working on weaponized drones packed with drones. In Yemen, the Houthi rebels have allegedly acquired weaponized drones, while in Mexico, the cartels are using drones to smuggle drugs across the border.

On top of all this, the next drones could be hacked. There is already a search engine that allows people to search for unsecured Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

However, some countries and companies are working to tackle drone terrorism threats. Switzerland has a project known as “U-Space,” which seeks to create a secure airspace for millions of drones. Part of U-Space includes giving IDs to drones and registering them. At the same time, U-Space will enforce geofencing (limiting drones from going into certain areas) around specific buildings and important neighborhoods.

In the U.K., telecommunications firm Vodafone is developing a drone-tracking system that will let governments track drones. It is already being tested in Germany and Spain.

In India, the city of Bangalore is testing a drone defense system to protect the city (and eventually the country) from drone attacks. Alongside these developments, blockchain could see a real integration in the world of robotics. Boeing is looking at blockchain and AI as a way to track advanced drones.

Interestingly, drone companies themselves are not leading the charge to track drones. Perhaps this is a business strategy to ensure the privacy of their customers. But unless drone companies themselves get involved – even if their participation is forced by governments – the ability of countries to track and stop drone threats will be limited.

Saudi Arabia holds first meeting in $500B model for megacities

Robotics development: King Salman, the leader of Saudi Arabia, has held the first meeting at the grounds of the NEOM megacity. The NEOM megacity will cost $500 billion, will be 33 times the size of New York City, and will cross three countries (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan).

The megacity will have huge levels of robotics and AI built into it, with large amounts of tasks being completely automated. It will also have its own independent laws, separate from the rest of the country. The first phase of NEOM is expected to be up and running by 2025.

Geopolitical significance: As a new era of geopolitics begins, where oil is no longer the most important resource, countries are starting to look for ways to transform themselves, including megacities. For Saudi Arabia, NEOM is the beginning of this transformation. Saudi Arabia isn’t alone in investing huge sums of money into cutting-edge smart cities, loaded with automation and AI.

Such megacities create a huge opportunity for robotics firms if they can overcome geopolitical hurdles. In 2019, Kuwait will start work on the “Saad Al-Abdullah City,” which is being implemented in large part by South Korean firms, including Hyundai. For South Korea, it is being called its first “smart city export.” The smart city will connect residents in a brand new way through depending on new technologies.

In the Philippines, a megacity called “New Clark City” has been unveiled. It will cost $14 billion and is expected to become a “twin city” to Manila, the capital of the Philippines. It is also being built to become a “city of the future,” with advanced robotics, self-driving cars, and a clean environment.

It isn’t just new cities that are being built from the ground up. Existing cities are also evolving into smart cities, such as the Indian city of Pune, which is being transformed by AI through a partnership with various foreign firms.

For robotics firms looking to take advantage of the growth in smart cities and megacities, it may not just be a question of having the right service at the right price. Geopolitics could limit which companies can participate. For example, China is building an extension to Colombo in Sri Lanka called the “Colombo Port City.” It will be a smart city.

But, because China is single-handedly funding the project, it is unlikely that non-Chinese firms will get big “pieces of the cake.” China is also building Southeast Asia’s first smart city in the Philippines (separate from New Clark City) called “New Manila Bay.” Again, non-Chinese firms may lose out.

As robotics firms looks to expand into new verticals, including smart cities and megacities, their ambitions may be hard to realize without a strategy that encompasses geopolitics. And that means they could lose out on a megacities market that is expected to become $260 billion by 2020, just in Asia.

Countries protect data for geopolitical advantage

Robotics development: India is reportedly looking into a “data localization” strategy that will force foreign technology firms to store their data within India instead of sending it outside. This is part of a goal to become “data sovereign.”

Geopolitical significance: India is one of many countries that are pursuing such a strategy. As more countries look to protect the data created within their borders, it could wreak havoc for robotics firms that may have fallen under the radar in the past. Any data created by robotics firms would have to comply with the emerging public policy, which is being fueled by changing domestic and international conditions.

For example, China is protecting the data around self-driving cars by only allowing Chinese companies to map Chinese roads. This means that self-driving cars from China may be the only ones with the ability to traverse China. By protecting data this way, China will have a huge advantage in the ongoing “technology wars.”

Without clear guidelines, governments may create the circumstances for slip-ups to emerge. In the Canadian city of Calgary, a mall was caught tracking shoppers through facial recognition. The shoppers were not informed, and there is no clear explanation of how the data was stored or shared.

At the same time, facial recognition at U.S. airports, which are part of the “Traveler Verification Service,” are creating privacy concerns as companies partaking in the verification service refuse to provide clarity on how data they collect is being used.

Alongside all of this there is iRobot, which last year proposed selling the maps of customer’s homes that its Roomba vacuum cleaners create to technology companies.

By limiting where data goes, India may be giving itself an edge in the world of technology and geopolitics. Many robotics and AI firms need raw data to succeed. By forcing these companies to become “localized,” it gives the Indian government new control over foreign firms. At the same time, India is controlling who can use data created domestically.

It is unclear as to whether countries like the U.S. will take action against India the same way they are taking action against China. If the U.S. does take action against India’s technology policies, it could again disrupt robotics firms.

Most recently, the updated list of Washington’s tariffs against Chinese goods included many technology services and parts. The U.S. has already brought up Harley Davidson motorcycles being taxed at 100% upon entering India. Will the U.S. bring up the obstacles robotics firms are facing next? Will India care?