April 08, 2017      

Smart machines are no longer over some distant horizon; they’re nearly within reach. Robots are communicating with one another and designing future iterations of themselves. Drones may soon check people crossing borders — miles before they cross them. In the next few years, artificial intelligence could design custom drugs, as a gap widens between nations over regulating and adopting self-driving cars.

Robotics Business Review has partnered with me to bring you a weekly roundup of the top robotics developments. This week, I jump from AI and designer drugs to border-control drones and more. Are you ready to be updated?

AI might soon design medicines

A team at Stanford University has developed an algorithm that can, based on the data given, identify the toxicity and side effects of different chemicals. These advances could allow pharmaceutical companies to use AI to predict chemical interactions at an early stage of drug design.

This algorithm is just one example of the growing ability of smart machines to help carry out complex tasks related to healthcare. Tomorrow, deep learning could customize existing medications to work with people of different blood types, weight classes, age brackets, and more.

They might also create personalized drugs for individual patients on demand. In short, AI could be the future chemist, doctor, and pharmacist in one.

The pharmaceutical industry is already heavily invested in automation and expects to increase its use of robots to ensure product quality and for packaging.

GM connects 7,500 workers

General Motors Co., the world’s largest automaker, said it has connected an estimated 7,500 factory robots (out of a total of 30,000) to the Internet. This connectivity allows GM’s robots to share data faster and help teams identify problems before they result in manufacturing slowdowns.

GM’s connected robots represent a key element of the so-called factory of the future and the Internet of Things (IoT). It isn’t just about enabling faster manufacturing or streamlining costs.

GM's smart machines include IoT in its factories and Robonaut with NASA.

In addition to connecting its car factory robots, GM is working with NASA on the Robonaut project.

It also isn’t just about deploying thousands of robots to assist or replace humans. True, the global automotive robotics market will grow at more than 11% from 2016 to 2025, predicts Hexa Research.

A key element of the future factory is that smart machines are connected to one another as well as to company servers and human eyes. This ensures that industrial automation can lead to optimized operations across the enterprise, better insights, and a better competitive position.

Drones to replace security cameras on borders

Robotics and AI will likely be a major part of border security efforts, particularly on the border between the U.S. and Mexico. President Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget reallocates funds to border security.

Already in 2016, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency announced a request for an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), similar to those sold by DJI (Dajiang Innovations Science and Technology Co.) and Parrot SA. Among other things, the UAV would include facial-recognition technologies and would be able to distinguish between humans and other objects.

Even aside from Trump’s controversial promises of a border wall, such smart machines would transform border security. For instance, they would change how ground transport crosses borders.

Currently, drivers must wait in lines as license plates, IDs, and other details are examined at checkpoints. Within a few years, UAVs could be scanning and identifying people miles before they reach checkpoints, informing officers and reducing wait times.

Mexico isn’t the only border where the U.S. wants to apply AI. On the U.S.-Canada border, the AVATAR (Automated Virtual Agent for Truth Assessments in Real Time) project is intended to identify when a person is lying by monitoring his or her eye movements and other factors.

As the U.S. looks to control its borders with both Mexico and Canada using automation, drone technology will spread worldwide. The question is, how will people react to these applications?

Robots ‘mate’ to exchange info

In a study conducted at Vassar College in New York, a team gave robots two tasks and tested their evolution over 10 generations. To ensure that the smart machines would evolve, the researchers developed a “randomized mating algorithm” that provided the robots with a way to “swap genetic material” — in this case, new ways to be wired.

Such a study marks a new milestone in the manufacturing of robots by robots. For now, humans are deciding what data robots have access to as they evolve. As robots become more sophisticated, they may decide on their own how to make themselves faster, smarter, and cheaper.

This will enable new business applications, as robots identify new wiring methods or hardware configurations for themselves. When applied to military settings, it may theoretically realize the old science fiction fears of loss of human control over robot development and behavior.

Millennials’ children will use self-driving cars

According to the hype around self-driving cars, the technology is just a few years away from being unleashed. While this is may be true for autonomous vehicle technologies, a future full of self-driving cars may be much further away — but not for the reason you think.

Uber's latest difficulties could be just the start of a global smart machine gap.

One Uber investor says that self-driving cars will be delayed in the U.S. by legal concerns.

According to Bill Gurley, an Uber Technologies Inc. investor, self-driving passenger vehicles are 25 years away in the U.S. because of its litigious culture. The ease with which people can sue one another hinders the ability of some smart machines to take off.

However, Gurley did say that the journey of autonomous vehicles will be a lot different in Asia because of the culture and the role of government in countries such as China and Singapore.

More on Smart Machines and Policy:

A smart machine gap grows

The ways societies and political systems are structured will play a huge role in the adoption rates for different types of robots. I have written extensively on this topic for the past two years.

Uber’s latest legal, safety, and financial challenges, as well as Gurley’s statements, only reinforce my point. They signal that robotics and related technologies are slowly diverging from the singular path they’ve been on so far.

On one path, the development and use of smart machines will accelerate in select markets. Meanwhile, only certain innovations will take off on the second path as others take longer to catch on.

As with natural resources and education, this divergence will create a new “gap” between nations as automation becomes fundamental to their economic advancement. Self-driving vehicles may provide the first glimpse at this new reality for global robotics.