Robots help break language barriers at the Smithsonian

Credit: Michelle Edwards, National Museum of African Art

May 04, 2018      

Global developments in robotics this week included robots overcoming language barriers, potential disruptions in the construction industry, and Germany talking with China around self-driving vehicles.

Robotics Business Review has partnered with Abishur Prakash at Center for Innovating the Future to provide its members with cutting-edge insights into recent developments in international robotics, AI, and unmanned systems. Are you ready to be updated?

Using robots to break cultural, language barriers

For centuries, culture, social norms, language, and strict history have acted as barriers to the expansion of business and government interests. Even with globalization, certain markets remain difficult to connect with, let alone enter, due to these differences. Robots could be a way to solve this by showing cultural sensitivity and sidestepping any bias other countries might have.

In the U.S., the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art will open an exhibit this month called “World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean.” To help guide visitors, the museum is deploying SoftBank Robotics’ Pepper humanoid robot, which will speak Swahili.

Smithsonian Museum of African Art Language Barriers article

Credit: Albert Herring via Wikimedia Commons

Using robots to overcome language barriers is a bigger deal than you may think. People who don’t speak Swahili will be exposed to it, possibly for the first time, through a robot. Those who speak the language will appreciate the way the language is being upheld in the U.S., again, through a robot.

This isn’t the first time an organization has deployed robots that speak a different language. In South Korea, LG robots were deployed to airports to greet visitors during this year’s Olympics. The robots could speak Mandarin, a signal of how much South Korea wanted to help Chinese visitors feel at home.

Robots that can help overcome language barriers or adapt to certain cultures more easily than humans could change the way businesses and governments interact. If a U.S. robotics firm wants to enter the Vietnamese market, would they send a Vietnamese-speaking robot along with company representatives to show their seriousness? If the French government wants to strengthen ties with Bolivia, could it have a Spanish-speaking robot accompany the French delegation?

Taking this a step further – would governments use robots as ambassadors or representatives to other countries? Would they be allowed to formulate policy or discuss important issues, or would they just be for show?

Robots disrupt construction market, brick by brick

Australian robotics company Fastbrick made headlines last year with a video showing its Hadrian X bricklaying robot, which can build a house in as little as two days.

A report this week said the company commissioned research from EY-Parthenon to help identify the addressable global market for construction of low-rise buildings. After determining that 30 million new low-rise buildings are anticipated this year, Fastbrick is targeting 2% of the global market within five years. EY-Parthenon concluded that in order for Fastbrick to control 100% of the market, it would need to build 150,000 Hadrian X robots.

That may sound like a lot of robots, but consider that in 2016, Japan produced 153,000 industrial robots.

Automation within construction affects countries differently. In the U.K., an estimated 600,000 construction jobs could be lost to robots by 2040. Both the U.S. and Japan, meanwhile, face a construction worker shortage. In Japan, the shortage will rise to more than 1 million by 2025. For these countries, construction robots could be a godsend.

The bigger question for governments isn’t whether construction robots would help or disrupt countries. Perhaps governments won’t view a robotics company that controls 2% of a market as a problem, but it should be a warning shot that automation is on the horizon.

Germany-China robotics partnership reaches new heights

Every robotics and artificial intelligence firm likely wants to break into two markets: the U.S. and China. Obviously, entering the U.S. is a lot easier than China. But entering China offers the biggest reward. But success isn’t just about business strategy, but also government leadership.

In this area, Germany excels. The country signaled its support for China several times in the past. When China launched the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to rival the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, Germany signed on. When China’s Media moved to acquire KUKA, Germany gave the green light. Now, thanks to government leadership towards China, German companies are benefiting.

This week, it was reported that Volkswagen is in talks with Didi, a Chinese ride-sharing service equivalent to Uber, to manage Didi’s vehicle fleet of 100,000 cars. If the talks are successful, two-thirds of Didi’s vehicles would be from VW. Equally important, VW and Didi would co-develop self-driving cars. If the deal is signed, it would be the most successful self-driving car deal signed by a German firm since BMW’s partnership with Baidu broke down in 2016.

What VW is doing could start a global trend. Other governments may be watching how German firms are succeeding in China, jolting them to change their approach to Beijing as a way to help local robotics and AI companies. From Canada to Cambodia, Poland to the Philippines, this potential deal would be a wake-up call.

But does China want to procure relations with everyone, or is Germany special? Because of its high-tech sector and capabilities, it could be viewed as special, making what VW is doing as much of a risk as it is a success. While this makes Germany a supplier to the ambitions of Chinese firms like Didi, it could also make Germany reliant on China and move the country away from the U.S.

The big challenge for robotics and AI companies is twofold: First, how do they make their government procure relations with China? Second, what happens if a China-centric strategy backfires?