Robotics & Geopolitics: U.K. Drives £10M Policy Around AI and Robotics


October 12, 2018      

Countries around the world continue to advance and fund policies around AI and robotics, self-driving vehicles, and drones. This week saw movement in the U.S., China, and the U.K. around these key technology innovations.

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?

U.S. moves forward on self-driving cars

Robotics development: The U.S. government recently passed several new policies around self-driving cars, all of which could propel the industry. The Department of Transportation (DOT) is now allowing states to compete to have “automated vehicle proving grounds.” Previously, locations were selected by the federal government. Second, the DOT has updated how it defines a “driver.” Going forward, the term “driver” could include robotic systems (alongside humans).

Geopolitical significance: As the U.S. introduces new policies around self-driving cars, the question of “why” has to be asked. Why now? One answer could be China.

When Vice President Mike Pence criticized China at a recent speech at the Hudson Institute, he talked about new technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence. The recent story in Bloomberg of Chinese “spy chips” in all kinds of U.S. devices, points to China’s growing power through technology. It may not be a coincidence that as tensions with China ramp up, the U.S. is coming out with new policies around an increasingly important industry.

While the U.S. may be leading the actual development of self-driving vehicles, China leads in taking its self-driving technology to different countries. In 2019, Baidu, China’s equivalent of Google, will be launching self-driving buses in Japan, a close ally of the U.S. Chinese firm ICONIQ will be testing a fleet of its self-driving cars during the Expo 2020, a major global event that will be held in Dubai in 2020.

On top of all that, China is also becoming a hub for foreign companies to test their self-driving vehicles, perhaps an indirect way to grow support with Beijing. BMW, for example, has become the first foreign automaker to get approval to test its self-driving vehicles in China (so has Volkswagen and Daimler). This all points to China’s growing leadership in an industry that could be worth $7 trillion by 2030. As the U.S. and China face off in trade and intellectual property, industries of tomorrow, such as self-driving vehicles, could be the new battlegrounds. The DOT’s new policies may be the first sign of this happening.

China grows global power through military drones

Robotics development: China announced it will sell 48 Wing Loong II series armed drones to Pakistan. This is the largest sale of its kind for China. Part of the agreement includes a technology transfer agreement. This means that future Wing Loong II drones will be manufactured in Pakistan itself. The deal between China and Pakistan comes days after India signed a $5.4 billion deal with Russia to acquire the S400 missile defense system. The S400 is one of the world’s most advanced missile defense systems.

Geopolitical significance: China’s “global expansion” has gone through phases. First, it revolved around loans. Then, it revolved around infrastructure. Now, it revolves around technology – specifically China sharing or selling its technology to countries that are strategic to it.

Pakistan is one of several countries that has purchased Chinese drones. In the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Jordan are all using Chinese drones for military operations. In Africa, Nigeria is using Chinese drones. In Europe, Serbia is negotiating for Chinese drones. One of the most popular drones China exports is the CH-4, which as of February 2018, 10 countries were in talks with China to buy.

The biggest selling point of the CH-4 is cost. The CH-4 (along with the CH-3) cost up to $4 million (the Wing Loong can cost as little as $1 million). Compare this to U.S. drones like the Predator and Reaper, which can cost as much as $20 million. In addition, the U.S. has been extremely protective about who it sells its military drones to. This has created a gap in the global market that China and Israel have been happy to fill.

As Chinese drones enter militaries in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, the question is whether this gives China any advantages. Perhaps the biggest is that these deals make militaries dependent on Chinese technology and hardware. As militaries become dependent on Chinese military technology, they might purchase more military equipment from China due to interoperability – this was one of the reasons behind the Pakistan drone deal.

At a time when the U.S. is looking to remove Chinese parts entirely from its military – the Pentagon plans to unveil a plan for domestic manufacturing – the rest of the world appears to be increasing its dependency on Chinese military goods.

U.K. £10M fund supports robo-lawyers, flying car rules

Robotics development: The British government is preparing a £10 million fund to support policy makers in understanding what kind of regulations are needed for new technologies. The fund will invest in 15 projects, such as “robolawyers” (which will receive a £700,000 grant) and rules for flying cars (which will receive a £1 million grant).

Geopolitical significance: During RoboBusiness 2018, I ran a session on the “Politics of Automation.” During the Q&A period, I was asked about the future of automation in Europe. One of my answers was that the U.K. may very well unveil new investments in robotics and AI in a bid to move the focus away from Brexit and the uncertainty around the May government.

Abishur Prakash RoboBusiness 2018 AI and Robotics

Abishur Prakash discusses automation and geopolitics at RoboBusiness 2018.

A few weeks later, as more political uncertainty grows in the U.K., London unveiled its £10 million fund. My prediction aside, the fund is the latest push by the U.K. to lead in AI and robotics, this time through public policy. This could be key to ensuring the U.K. is successful with AI and robotics post-Brexit.

Increasingly, foreign companies are striking AI and robotics deals within British borders. For example, Tencent, one of the largest internet companies in China, is working with King’s College Hospital in London to develop AI that can spot Parkinson’s Disease in minutes. At the same time, British robotics firms are looking to go global, such as Five AI, which is developing a self-driving car that could rival those from foreign automakers.

But many of these deals are unlikely to bear fruit unless the U.K.’s public policy keeps up pace. The investment in the robolawyer, for example, revolves around ethics: is it acceptable to allow a robot to handle legal cases? Similarly, Innovate UK has given £865,000 as a grant to develop AI for healthcare. Findings from this grant may influence the U.K.’s policy around AI-doctors, which in turn could affect Tencent’s deal in the country.

There are also questions whether the U.K.’s policy push will be effective at all. Companies in other countries are working on similar systems to weed out bias or load AI with certain ethics. Germany’s SAP, for example, unveiled Europe’s first AI ethics advisory panel. IBM has developed a tool that can analyze how AI is functioning, spot biases and offer solutions. If the U.K.’s policy plan doesn’t lead to advances like those, it’s unclear what benefit it will produce. One thing is clear though: the U.K. is moving in the right direction, and as Brexit and politics create challenges for the British government, AI and robotics appear to be one of the only industries that is receiving continued attention from 10 Downing Street.