August 04, 2017      

In this week’s roundup, we look at China-U.S. trade tensions could harm the growing robotics industry. Also, self-driving cars are already in trials worldwide, but how is such research crossing borders? What if robotic appliances start sharing private information with other vendors?

Robotics Business Review has partnered with me to look at noteworthy recent developments in robotics, autonomous systems, and artificial intelligence. Are you ready to be updated?

Driverless cars move beyond borders

Continental AG and Magna International Inc. are deploying two self-driving cars to travel between the U.S. and Canada. The vehicles will travel from the Detroit area to Sarnia, a small city west of Toronto. The objective is to see how these autonomous cars handle cross-country travel.

This collaboration between Hanover, Germany-based Continental and Aurora, Ontario-based Magna highlights the international dimension of self-driving car research and commercialization.

Neighboring jurisdictions and multinational companies will need to cooperate in determining how driverless vehicles will behave and what rules they should follow. The challenge isn’t just technological, but rather also legal and cultural.

Without government leadership, automakers and autonomous systems providers could develop systems that might not align with local regulations — especially if their vehicles are traveling between countries.

Australia embraces self-driving cars

For the next two years, a driverless car trial will be held at Sydney Olympic Park. The vehicle will operate at just 6.2 mph (10 km/h). For the first phase of the trial, it will operate on a road that is closed to general traffic.

Research project Highly automated driving on highways - Dr. Nico Kampchen on a test drive (08/2011)

After this, the vehicle will be deployed in the business part of the park and start transporting passengers. Like the U.S. and Canada, Australia has wide-open spaces and a strong interest in autonomous vehicles, especially in areas such as agriculture and mining, not to mention consumer vehicles.

This trial may be just one of many worldwide, but it reflects a growing push by Australia to take leadership in robotics. Note that Australian teams won the latest RoboCup (featuring robot soccer) and the Amazon Picking Challenge.

Australia has some unique traits that may differentiate it. For Asian companies, the country can serve as a launch pad into the West. For Western companies, Australia can serve as a launch pad into Asia. Could Australia become a major player in self-driving cars and robotics?

Robots need data-collection laws

iRobot Corp.’s CEO last week proposed that the data its robot vacuum cleaners collect in people’s homes be sold to companies such as Amazon, Apple, or Google. This immediately raised privacy concerns. For now, only the newest Roomba vacuums collect data as they move around a house and create a virtual map.

Considering the amount of personal information that people share online or have on their easily lost smartphones, data collection by robots has not been a major problem. But as robots become integrated within our daily lives, from mowing our lawns to transporting us to cooking our food, the companies that make them will gain access to data on tens of millions of people.

Such data could be extremely sensitive and dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands, so robotics companies and governments need to work out the best ways to protect it during collection, storage, and sharing with other systems. In the absence of guidelines, if service robots are hacked, personal data is stolen, or robots are used to spy on people, there could be a consumer backlash.

Germany tests AI to catch terrorists

Germany has begun a six-month trial to test facial recognition technology at a train station. Several parties are involved, including the German Federal Police, the Federal Criminal Police Office, and the Interior Ministry.

Security concerns include AI for counterterrorism and China-U.S. trade.

Sudkreuz Station in Berlin is testing AI for facial recognition.

For now, the trial will revolve around 200 volunteers sharing information, including pictures, which will be stored in a database. The program will then access this information when one of the volunteers enters the station to see if it can identify him or her. After the AI trial, the facial recognition technology could be deployed to catch terrorists.

As with surveillance technology, such algorithms and AI security require ethical and legal thought. Each state or country could develop different standards depending on their history, culture, and regulatory frameworks. This makes Germany’s facial recognition testing more global than domestic.

More on Global Robotics and China-U.S. Trade:

Robotics companies caught in China-U.S. trade disputes

The U.S. government is debating whether launch a probe into practices in China that require American multinationals to share their technology if they wish to do business in Asia’s largest economy. This probe could be the first step to a China-U.S. trade war, as it allows for sanctions.

At the same time, it could lead to a clash with the aspirations of American companies. If the U.S. moves forward with this probe, it would create a new geopolitical challenge for U.S. businesses. Would they abide by its rulings and forfeit the Chinese market? Or would they risk their intellectual property and their domestic reputations with China-U.S. trade?

At the same time, China has unveiled $89 million (600 million yuan) to launch “dozens” of robotics projects in 2017, signaling further ambition from China to become a global leader in this field. What role will U.S. companies play in helping China’s economy? Depending on this, the U.S. may be more inclined to restrict technology transfer.

China is also considering limiting its investments in foreign companies. Such policies make sense in terms of self-interest and protecting local industry, but they could stifle innovation and market growth.

Despite obvious tech and economic interdependence seen in existing China-U.S. trade, governments have been taking increasingly protectionist stances toward robotics and AI. Last week, we explored how Germany’s foreign acquisition laws are following a similar approach toward China.