A week after RoboBusiness 2018, and the themes of robotics and international trade, workforce development, and ethical development of artificial intelligence and autonomous systems are as relevant as ever, as we’ll see in the news items below. The U.S. isn’t the only country looking to press its advantage with automation, but companies everywhere should make note of changing policies that will affect them.
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?
USMCA could help U.S. tech at neighbors’ expense
Robotics development: Hours before a midnight deadline on Sept. 30, the U.S. and Canada signed a trade deal that the U.S. and Mexico had already agreed to. The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) is a major overhaul of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Tucked between various sections of the USMCA is an area dedicated to protecting digital technologies. This has implications for automation suppliers and users.
Geopolitical significance: The USMCA is the most important North American trade agreement in recent history. And while it still awaits congressional approval in the U.S. and Mexico and parliamentary approval in Canada, it may be a model of the kind of trade deals the U.S. government is seeking around the world.
The U.S. has already taken steps to protect certain industries, such as robotics and AI, and this extends to trade deals. For example, the USMCA does not allow data localization, in which nations store data within their own borders.
Since most North American technology firms are based in the U.S., this may give U.S. firms a competitive advantage in data. This in turn could help them develop sophisticated AI systems. The data localization clause is being viewed as negative for innovation in Canada and Mexico.
The new trade deal also includes changes in regulations around questionable Internet content. The USMCA doesn’t hold Internet companies liable, completely opposite to laws the European Union (EU) is mulling. Considering that companies such as Facebook are turning to AI to take down offensive or terrorist-related content, the USMCA may slow adoption in this area.
There are also clauses in the USMCA that may boost or hurt automation. For example, NAFTA required that 63% of car parts must be produced in North America. The USMCA raises this to 75%. This increase could push factories toward automation if there aren’t enough workers.
At the same time, the USMCA requires that 40% to 45% of car and truck parts must be made by workers who earn at least $16 an hour. Is this the first trade law that targets automation? It may be difficult for factories to use machines over people, if “workers” have to earn $16 an hour.
The USMCA will get fleshed out more over time, and amendments may be introduced as politicians in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico call for changes.
But regardless of what happens, the USMCA may be a blueprint of how the U.S. approaches trade in the future. Through similar arrangements, the U.S. could boost its competitive edge on the world stage, especially in areas having to do with new technologies.
Global talent rush pushes firms to automation
Robotics development: According to numerous companies, the competition to acquire talent and the lack of talent in several markets are pushing them to deploy automation. Many low-level positions face worker shortages, and companies are struggling to retain employees, even with increased wages and benefits. For instance, Amazon.com Inc. raised base salaries this week, even as it uses more robots and prepares to hire seasonal workers.
Markets such as food service are looking at automation as a “long-term” solution to worker and talent shortages.
Geopolitical significance: Business around the world are facing stiff competition for relatively small pools of talent. For example, there are only 300,000 AI engineers in the world.
However, it’s not just robotics or AI skills that are scarce; there are also shortages of talent for all kinds of jobs. The next generation is increasingly turning away from traditional 9-to-5 jobs in favor of creative work. This job preference is another impetus for companies to investing in all kinds of automation.
This trend is taking place across industries. A coffee shop in the U.S. is using a robot arm to make coffee, a firm from Singapore has developed a robot that can produce Indian flatbread, and in Canada, a robot bartender is serving drinks.
While this is a sign of the kind of innovative ways robots can be used, there are also risks. Tomorrow, if the next generation wants traditional jobs, it may be too late — those jobs may have become completely automated. Could this lead to social and political unrest?
In some cases, governments are already taking action to stop robots from taking some jobs. In the U.S., an amendment was added to the Department of Defense’s appropriations bill that called for a ban on funding for robot bartenders.
At the same time, as companies turn to automation to address talent shortages, real questions emerge as to which robots they are buying and from where. For example, a startup in the U.S. is using an ABB robot arm to speed up pizza delivery. Are some countries benefiting from automation more than others?
In addition, robotics can help groups that were formerly excluded from society be included more. There are plans for a café in Tokyo that will use robots controlled by disabled people.
Nations look to robots to project military power
Robotics development: The U.K.’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) has led the creation of a new AI system called “SAPIENT.” The system connects AI to sensors on battlefields, allowing them to make autonomous decisions, such as informing soldiers that a threat is around a corner.
SAPIENT has been tested in Montreal as part of the Contested Urban Environment (CUE) initiative, which brings together militaries from the “Five Eyes” (the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand) to test new technologies.
Geopolitical significance: Most advances in military robotics have to do with a specific area, such as autonomous drones or unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs). But SAPIENT is one of the first that is all-encompassing, designed to help forces in all theaters. It’s also an early example of the kind of edge that nations are building through robotics and AI.
In the U.S., the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has unveiled $2 billion to build the “third wave” of AI. The initiative’s goal is to take AI to the next level, by introducing new concepts and research that allow it to adapt to different environments.
While not a stated goal, it’s possible that the Pentagon wants to move away from having dozens or hundreds of different AI systems operating at any given moment and instead have a few, larger ones in charge.
In addition, the Army Research Laboratory (ARL) is developing “mobile intelligent entities,” which are autonomous ground vehicles.
How will other nations, such as Russia, China, India, Israel, Japan, and South Korea, use their unique technological advantages to build leadership in military robotics?
Autonomous systems present a new way to project power. Right now, the U.S. Navy is an example of how the U.S. does so globally. For instance, the U.S. has approximately as many aircraft carriers, as the rest of the world combined.
In the future, will nations need to invest in aircraft carriers to project power?
In June, China tested a drone swarm of 56 unmanned vessels in the South China Sea, the same area where a Chinese warship recently came very close to a U.S. warship.
Whether or not military robots can outmatch their traditional counterparts remains to be seen. But what’s clear is that such advances could increase the gap between nations that are building robotics, AI, and autonomous systems and nations that don’t.