March 24, 2017      

China is working to become the leader in artificial intelligence, while Israel uses military drones, and German companies specialize in industrial robot arms. There’s so much daily news about global robotics scene that it’s hard to stay on top of it, no matter whether you’re an executive or a policy maker.

Robotics Business Review has partnered with me to bring you a cutting-edge look into the week’s five most important global robotics developments. Let’s dive in!

1. Asia’s new AI player

Artificial intelligence and Asia are synonymous mainly because of the advances taking place Japan, China, and South Korea. Now, a fourth country is entering the race: Singapore.

Japan’s NEC Corp. has partnered with SMRT Corp., a local bus company in Singapore, and completed a trial that tested AI’s ability to predict accidents. Their data scientists looked at performance data, bus driver behavior, and more to make predictions.

A few weeks ago, the government of Singapore unveiled grants of S$45 million ($32.14 million U.S.) to two organizations. One of them, the Defence Science and Technology Agency, will use the money for research and development of military applications using AI and big data.

Last October, Singapore’s Ministry of Defence said it wants “autonomous unmanned systems” to support soldiers on the battlefield.

With Singapore’s new focus on AI, the Asian robotics scene could heat up even further. The island nation might not be able to compete with China and Japan in terms of funding, but it has many other advantages.

It has an English-speaking population and a developed economy interested in growing trade with the West. Singapore is also becoming a startup hub and already has established global robotics companies.

For instance, Singapore-based GreyOrange is a major supplier of automation to India and is looking to expand into warehousing and logistics.

Singapore is also becoming a startup hub and is not just a new AI player in Southeast Asia, but for the world.

2. Can’t trust self-driving cars

Would you trust a self-driving car to make tough decisions? Apparently, Volvo doesn’t. Hakan Samuelsson, CEO of Volvo Cars, said during the 2017 Geneva Motor Show that the company’s self-driving vehicles, if faced with an “imminent accident,” will not decide between saving the driver or a pedestrian.

Another global robotics development is that Volvo doesn't want its self-driving cars to make life-and-death decisions.

Volvo, which is known for safe vehicles, prefers that humans make critical decisions over self-driving cars.

This raises the question of what exactly autonomous vehicles would do. Samuelsson also stated Volvo’s stance: “Our self-driving cars will not have ethics built into them to deal with life-and-death situations.”

This could reflect a widening divide within the automotive industry. Will some self-driving cars include ethics in their programming, and will some consumers want vehicles without such programming?

For those vehicles that do include moral decision-making capacity, who will determine those ethical rules?

When then-President Barack Obama spoke with Wired about robotics and AI last year, he raised this very point. He mentioned the kinds of decisions self-driving cars will be forced to make, like avoiding a pedestrian but then hitting a wall, causing the driver to die.

Right now, the major automakers and AI companies have claimed that self-driving cars will be safer, but they haven’t explicitly addressed ethical dilemmas. And that means, for now, we should think twice before trusting self-driving cars to make tough decisions.

3. Hail the AI doctors

Google parent Alphabet’s artificial intelligence is famous for a lot of things. It has generated eerie pictures, exhibited aggression when competing in a game, and beat the world’s best player in Go. Now, DeepMind is focusing on something new: diagnosing breast cancer.

The AI was taught to recognize patterns. Then it was shown thousands of pictures of cancer cells to identify which ones exhibit breast cancer. According to Google, it achieved amazing results, but the AI is still limited to the lab.

As machine learning is applied to areas such as diagnosis, it will change how healthcare is administered globally. From Canada to Australia, India to Iran, people will have access to medical treatment in entirely new ways.

In fact, doctors and nurses (who are always in short supply, especially with aging populations) could be replaced or have their capabilities extended by robotics and AI.

Global robotics companies operating in this field should consider the current lack of clarity on how different nations will respond. Governments looking to prepare for AI-enabled healthcare should think about how to balance innovation, consumer choice, and existing systems and practices.

4. We need more power

Powering robots is a real challenge. Those that sit on a factory floor may have a permanent power connection. But the rest — like those transporting parts in a factory, helping assist a person in a home, or working alongside soldiers in a battlefield — all rely on battery-power.

Among MIT's robotics developments is a "tree on a chip" for hydraulically powered robots.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed fluid-transfer technology.

Scientists at MIT have developed a “tree on a chip.” This device mimics the pumping behavior that trees use, allowing fluids to move through the device smoothly, all without moving parts or external pumps. The researchers envision such a chip being used for hydraulics in robots.

Combine this with an algorithm created in Sweden that manipulates the way in which robots accelerate and decelerate, resulting in a 40% decrease in energy use. Extending robot power use could be on the horizon.

One of the biggest challenges remains: How do you protect these power innovations from being copied? Power is a global robotics challenge.

Without proper patents and intellectual property (IP) laws, however, these robotic innovations could become a free commodity. Even Elon Musk’s Tesla and Powerwall batteries have IP protection.

Are the companies and institutions investing in these advances ready for that?

More on Global Robotics Developments:

5. Robots tinier than insects

According to Louis del Monte, the author of a new book, the human race is at risk of going extinct because of “nanoweapons.” These robots that are smaller than insects and are already being developed by the U.S., China and Russia, he told the U.K.-based Daily Mail.

While the main focus of del Monte’s book is on existential threat posed by robots, insect-sized robots could instead provide benefits.

For example, pollination is an emerging challenge as bee numbers drop. Japan recently tested using drones for artificial pollination, but insect-sized robots could be better at this task because of their size, even if they have a long way to go to replace insects.

Equally important is cleaning pollution. Tens of thousands of insect sized robots in the sky absorbing pollution or on the ground recycling garbage could make cities more livable. Small robots would also be a lot easier for people to navigate around.

Nanorobots are still an emerging phenomenon, but there are applications from healthcare to agriculture. Just as swarm robotics is becoming a de facto technology in many robot environments, so too may nanobots.