Robotics & Geopolitics: Nations Should Prepare for Talent Wars

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October 19, 2018      

Around the world this week, we saw countries readying their workforces for emerging technology talent wars, discussing ownership rights over self-driving car data, and the U.S. military continuing to deploy and research autonomous vehicle capabilities.

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?

‘Talent wars’ on the horizon for many countries

Robotics development: By 2021, Huawei plans to train 1 million new experts in AI. Huawei will do this through online education, along with $200 million in funding to various universities and research organizations around the world. In China, a seasoned AI engineer can earn more than $7,000 per month (50,000 yuan).

Geopolitical significance: For a long time, I have warned that talent wars are on the horizon. In coming years, countries will compete over talent in critical industries like AI, robotics, gene editing and virtual reality — the new battlefields.

Huawei is building China’s AI talent pool at a time when there is a huge, global void in AI talent. In India alone, there are 50,000 job vacancies in the AI field, while in Singapore, the education minister has sounded the alarm over the lack of tech talent in the country.

Huawei may be following firms like Facebook, which is training its own employees on AI instead of relying on external talent.

The Time for Workforce Retraining Conversations Is Now

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Training talent in these new skills is only part of the equation – the other part is keeping talent. After all, these employees will build the next billion-dollar startups, transform economies, reinvent government services, and much more.

How do governments ensure that vital talent doesn’t pack up shop and leave, especially for a competitor nation?

The short answer is: They can’t ensure anything. Countries like Canada, the U.K., and Germany have all warned that they are facing an AI brain drain as “foreign” tech companies eat up all the talent. While there are some plans to stop talent from leaving, like Ellis in Europe, these strategies are unlikely to change much. Labs aren’t enough. Neither are sky-high salaries.

While U.S. firms offer AI engineers as much as $600,000 a year, the city of Beijing is offering more than $150,000 as a signing bonus for foreign AI talent. Everyone has deep pockets.

The only way companies and countries can win the future talent wars is by tapping talent in unique ways, by integrating talent — foreign and domestic — in ways other nations aren’t. While no country is effectively doing this right now with AI, Malta is doing this with blockchain. This model is something the rest of the world could adapt with other emerging technologies.

Countries could clash over self-driving car data ownership

Robotics development: While debating rules for self-driving vehicles, the European Union flagged down a law that would have allowed data generated from self-driving vehicles to be copyright-free (not owned by anyone). Going forward, the EU may give a party, such as the automaker, ownership over data that self-driving vehicles produce.

Geopolitical significance: Today, data from smartphones, email, social media, Web browsing and more is considered the “new oil.” This kind of data gives companies (and governments) insight into what a person is thinking, doing or even what they might do.

Data is so valuable that organizations are willing to pay for it. In the Netherlands, a student sold off his data for $480, while in a separate instance, a person made $2,733 off his data.

Similarly, data generated from robots, like self-driving cars, could be the next new oil.

But if the EU and other governments are already deciding who owns this data, then laws could clash across borders. For example, take the “The Quayside,” a smart-city project being built by Sidewalk Labs (Alphabet) in Toronto that will have automation and robots among other new technologies. Even before work has begun, there are huge concerns over privacy and data. Chiefly, what is Sidewalk Labs going to do with all the data it collects?

To quell worries, the idea of an independent “data trust” has been proposed. But here is where things get murky. What happens if self-driving vehicles from Germany or France are part of Quayside in the future? Based on the EU’s ruling, Mercedes or Renault would own the data from its self-driving vehicles. But Sidewalk Labs may reroute the data from these vehicles into a data trust.

If Canada creates its own data localization laws, similar to what India is pursuing, EU laws could clash with Canadian laws. What all of this means is that what one government is doing to regulate robots could create problems for other countries.

But it isn’t just about data storage or protection. It’s also about the “edge” that data could give certain nations. Just as data on browsing activity gives retailers insight into what to advertise to a customer, so too, data from self-driving cars could give businesses all kinds of ideas. This could cause governments to ignore data laws, as they seek to ensure the data from self-driving cars gives its firms an edge.

U.S. military continues to deploy robotics

Robotics development: The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has begun the next phase of its OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) program. The goal of OFFSET is to allow up to 250 robots to work as a swarm with human soldiers on the ground. Deployed in urban environments, the OFFSET robots would be largely autonomous.

Geopolitical significance: The OFFSET program is a glimpse of the kind of capabilities the U.S. military will have in coming years. As U.S. military capabilities change, so will U.S. geopolitical power.

Currently, the U.S. has more than 1,000 military bases in over 80 countries, a total of 19 aircraft carriers (compared with the 12 the rest of the world has in total) and a military budget of more than $700 billion, more than the next seven countries combined. This is the traditional U.S. military structure for the past several decades.

In the future, robots may represent U.S. military power more than anything else. OFFSET is one of many programs that point to this. DARPA is also working on a the Subterranean Challenge, a.k.a. SubT, to develop drones that can produce high-quality maps of caves and other underground areas. This is similar to something seen in the movie Prometheus.

At the same time, the Pentagon is investing $2 billion over the next five years into AI research and development. This is a huge deal because it is more than the AI budgets of most nations. It also demonstrates that the U.S. government is focusing on military AI more than other types of AI.

The U.S. Air Force is also upgrading its F-22 and F-35 fighter jets to be able to command drones and complete other tasks.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army wants at least 70 self-driving supply trucks by 2020, part of a program called “Expedient Leader-Follower,” which would see a human-driven truck leading autonomous trucks.

As robots form the backbone of the U.S. military, it will change how the U.S. operates around the world. For example, through OFFSET, the U.S. may have more “on demand” resources and could maintain/build more bases as drones could be cheaply produced, as compared to traditional vehicles and tanks. Through robots, could the U.S. expand its military presence? At the same time, the U.S., through SubT and enhanced fighter jets, may be able to better compete with hardware offered by U.S. competitors like China and Russia.

But a big question in front of the U.S. is cost. Programs like the F-35 cost a whopping $1.5 trillion and have taken far longer than expected. If the U.S. can’t transition some of its projects from testing to full production rapidly and cheaply, the U.S. military may end up with expensive toys that aren’t much different than what everyone else has.