Robotics & Geopolitics: Robotics, AI Could Launch New Space Race

CIMON in space. Credit: Airbus

July 12, 2018      

Robotics and artificial intelligence developments continue to impact the geopolitical landscape. This week saw developments of a new space race around robotics and AI, a rising star in the Middle East, and discussions about ethics for autonomous vehicles.

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?

Space race boosted by AI, robotics 

Robotics development: An AI assistant called Crew Interactive Mobile Companion (CIMON) has been designed by Airbus and IBM to support astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS). CIMON is the size of a medicine ball but packs the power of IBM Watson. It can respond to voice commands and has been programmed to have a “friendly face.” It will operate on the ISS from now until October 2018.

CIMON ISS space race article

CIMON against the backdrop of the International Space Station. Credit: IBM

Geopolitical significance: It’s clear that a new space race is underway between world powers, and AI and robotics could define who wins.

For example, NASA is creating AI for space communications, robot bees to explore Mars, a small robot helicopter for its next Mars mission, droids to build a base on the moon, and panels that can swarm in space to create telescopes. It also wants future spacecraft to use blockchain and AI to “think for themselves” in deep space missions.

The China National Space Administration has a multi-decade plan to guide its space exploration. By 2050, China wants a base on the moon, operated by robots. It is also developing a robotic space arm to build the China Space Station (CSS), expected to be completed by 2022, around the time the ISS is decommissioned or sold off. China said the CSS will be open to all members of the U.N.

Other countries are also interested in using robotics and AI for exploration in this new space race, including:

Facing large ambitions from these countries, robotics companies have a huge opportunity in front of them. Governments need ways to achieve their space-race goals, and robotics and AI will increasingly be the main way to do this. Because the 21st-century space race isn’t just between two countries (originally the U.S. and Soviet Union in the 1960s), robotics companies have more options to work with governments from around the world.

However, there might be restrictions on who companies can sell to. For example, the U.S. has banned NASA from working with China, and the FAA has banned commercial satellites from being launched by the Indian Space Research Organization, although some companies are ignoring this. Washington might limit how U.S. robotics and AI firms sell innovations abroad, including in space.

But this shouldn’t deter companies in this space race. For the U.S. especially, robotics and AI may influence U.S. power in space more than anything else.

When the ISS is decommissioned in the 2020s, China will have world’s only space station. The U.S. has banned Chinese astronauts from using the ISS – will China respond in the same way? If so, the U.S. might need robot astronauts to compete in the space race.

Countries mull ethics rules for self-driving cars

Robotics development: Earlier this month, ABC sent out a notification to people using its app. The notification was a question that asked users, “You’re in a driverless car when three people run onto the road. Your car will injure you instead of them. Do you agree with that?”

This sparked a huge discussion on social media about the kind of ethics self-driving cars should have, and how they should make decisions.

Geopolitical significance: With the fatal Uber crash a few months ago, followed by several high-profile accidents involving Tesla vehicles in autopilot mode, ethics for self-driving cars is becoming more important. The main question: how should a driverless car behave in a situation that threatens human life?

Answering this question may not be entirely up to robotics firms. Around the world, governments are taking steps to define how self-driving cars should behave. For example, in 2016, Germany considered legislation that would require all Germans self-driving cars to have black boxes.

In August 2017, Germany unveiled the world’s first ethics for self-driving cars, which has 15 rules. In May 2018, the European Union (EU) announced it would be developing rules for self-driving cars, including ethics.

Japan is taking a different route. Instead of ethics, Japan has turned to public policy. In Japan, owners will be liable if their self-driving cars crash.

Countries are also “importing” rules from other countries. In March 2018, China announced that it would “likely” adopt some German rules around self-driving cars. Might this include German ethics? If so, it would be a new kind of exchange between China and Germany.

For robotics companies, the big challenge isn’t just complying with what governments are doing today, but with what governments might do tomorrow. For instance, in 2017, the U.K. launched a “review” of its road laws to ensure self-driving cars come on roads by 2021. What kind of changes might the U.K. make?

Following Brexit, as nationalism in the U.K. grows, the British government might mandate that foreign car companies load their self-driving cars with British ethics if they want to sell into the U.K. What will this mean for car companies like General Motors, Baidu, and Uber? Will foreign governments be okay with this?

Robotics businesses must think about ethics as a global issue, not a local issue. Otherwise, these businesses could be disrupted by brash policies that threaten their stake in what could be a $7 trillion industry by 2050.

UAE creates a new future through AI

Robotics development: According to a report, by 2030, AI will add $320 billion to the GDP of the Middle East. The two countries expected to benefit most are the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). The UAE specifically could see AI add $182 billion to its economy by 2035. A separate report projects that AI could increase the UAE economy by 35% by 2031.

Dubai Marina cityscape, UAE space race article

Dubai and the UAE are poised to become a robotics and AI giant. Credit: Deposit Photos

Geopolitical Significance: The UAE is an AI power, and this gives it a new kind of geopolitical influence. But how did the UAE become an AI leader? What exactly is the UAE doing that other countries aren’t?

In a nutshell: everything. The UAE is firing on all cylinders and taking risks while other countries are focusing on one area and playing it safe. In 2017, the UAE became the first country in the world to appoint a “State Minister for Artificial Intelligence.” In May 2018, the UAE announced the implementation of 26 mechanisms to adopt AI.

To create local talent, the Ministry of Education has launched a plan known as “Industrial Revolution X” to give students in the UAE skills in AI, Internet of Things, blockchain, self-driving cars, and robotics. At the same time, 500 men and women have been selected as the first batch to receive AI skills training.

By 2025, the Dubai police wants 25% of its officers to be robots. The Abu Dhabi police force has a plan known as “Abu Dhabi 2057” in which robotics and AI play a huge role.

The UAE is also leading in actual deployment. In September 2017, the UAE launched a center that can deliver 100 government services through AI. A single human is employed. In April 2018, the infrastructure ministry said it was using AI to improve use of road resources. By doing this, it had reduced the duration of road projects by 54%, consumption of fuel by 37% and dependency on manpower by 80%.


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At the same time, the UAE Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) deployed AI to monitor parking zones, while the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority established a “Digital Command Center” that uses AI to monitor digital infrastructure.

Equally important is that the UAE is also developing home-grown solutions. For example, students at the United Arab Emirates University have developed a bracelet that uses AI to stop people from drowning, while other startups are relocating to the UAE to receive funding.

The UAE is also taking its AI to other countries. Earlier this month, the UAE and the Netherlands discussed AI for agriculture, while the UAE and Russia discussed cooperation in various fields, including AI.

For policy makers thinking about what kind of framework to create to fuel AI, the UAE should serve as a blueprint. For robotics businesses thinking about which countries will be future hubs for robotics/AI, look no further than the UAE.

Dubai photo courtesy of Deposit Photos.