August 16, 2017      

What will new technologies, including robotics, mean for countries around the world? This is the focus of Abishur Prakash’s book, Next Geopolitics: The Future of World Affairs (Technology). In it, he combines deep research, pointed questions, and forward-thinking scenarios to paint a brand-new picture of the future. Prakash predicts that business fortunes and geopolitical affairs will be defined by technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology.

Prakash is a leading contributor to Robotics Business Review and writes regularly about military robotics, security and surveillance, industry transformations, and geopolitical challenges. He will also be speaking about robotics, AI, and Internet of Things security at RoboBusiness 2017.

Prakash’s main role, however, is as a “geopolitical futurist” at the Center for Innovating the Future, a title he defines as “understanding how new technologies will transform world affairs and what this means for a business or government.” His clients consist mainly of Fortune 500 firms, high-growth startups, and governments.

This past spring, Prakash addressed the Canadian Senate, and he has also been published in Forbes. Here, he shares his thoughts the growing roles that automation and related technologies are playing in international relations.

Business Takeaways:

  • According to Prakash, the intersection of military and robotics interests is going to be important to our geopolitical future. Countries will soon have to determine how autonomous systems affect declarations of war.
  • Robotics companies need what Prakash calls a “georobotics” strategy to deal with challenges such as government restrictions on automation in response to job or security concerns.
  • Each region faces its own unique challenges in growing its economy with robotics and AI. For example, if European robotics developments rely on government support, than uncertainty about EU membership will affect local industry.

What developments within robotics and AI do you expect will take place this year?

Prakash: Two come to mind. First, I expect that this year we will witness the first cyberattack conducted by artificial intelligence — probably in a controlled environment. At a DARPA competition last year, a group created an AI called “Mayhem” that can identify holes in networks and patch them. If you tilt this on its head, instead of patching holes, an AI could exploit them.

Second, I expect there will be even more advances in military robotics compared with last year — which was huge. And, this will probably all be around autonomous systems, like humanoid soldiers that can patrol borders on their own or even more advanced unmanned ground vehicles. I expect most of these developments to come from the U.S., China, or Russia.

Are there any specific steps robotics suppliers should take to deal how their technologies are used?

Prakash: Last year, I outlined why companies need to develop a “georobotics” strategy. In short, robotics companies are developing technologies that will be used so many ways and could affect security, economies, and societies at large. Are robotics companies prepared for all the possibilities?

Geopolitical implications of robotics are Abishur Prakash's area of expertise.

For example, what happens if France-based drone manufacturer Parrot learns that ISIS soldiers in Syria are using its drones to conduct cyberattacks? Similarly, French cement company Lafarge paid ISIS “taxes” to continue operating. This is an example of poor preparation or advice.

Robotics companies need a plan for geopolitical and social changes. A drivers’ association in New York recently called for a 50-year ban on self-driving cars to protect taxi drivers. When and if governments agree to such restrictions, those who supply and use unmanned systems will be caught in the cross-hairs.

In addition, the European Union is taking steps to regulate robots, such as labelling them as “electronic persons.” While a proposal to tax robots failed, the reality is the EU will eventually come out with a policy framework for robots. How will robotics and AI companies respond?

In your opinion, what is the most important area of robotics for countries and the geopolitical landscape?

Prakash: The first is military robotics, but not for the obvious reasons. Most people think military robotics is just about enhancing a nation’s conventional strength. But as I noted in my book, autonomous systems change the very definition of defense. What constitutes an act of war? This “locked and loaded” concept was recently in the news, and every nation will have to think about its threshold for conflict.

The second area is in automation and jobs. According to Wired, AI is replacing accountants, and some studies have claimed that the 1.7 million truck drivers in the U.S. could lose their jobs to self-driving trucks.

This year, the occupations that will feel threatened by automation will expand. Governments need to plan for this — how do you deal with hundreds of thousands, or millions, of people unemployed because of robots and limited AI applications? Universal basic income may — or may not — be the right solution.

How do you see AI influencing government-to-government behavior?

Prakash: This is such an important question, and I don’t know whether countries are aware of it.

For the first time, AI will play an equal role to humans in world affairs. China’s Baidu last year unveiled an algorithm that can predict where dangerous crowds will form. And, Russia unveiled an AI that can detect ethnic outbreaks at an early stage.

In my book, I ask a simple question: What happens if countries apply this predictive technology to foreign policy? In other words, what happens when nations can predict events on the world stage, like the movement of troops or changing trade conditions, before they occur?

In addition, countries can apply AI to multiple vertical markets. For example, countries might launch AI-run funds to invest in foreign businesses. Or, a trade ministry could deploy AI to help advise, or even negotiate, trade deals with another country.

These are the kinds of geopolitical possibilities I imagine as multinationals and governments take advantage of AI advances.

Is it a mistake to assume that robotics development and adoption will happen in the same way across the North America, Europe, and Asia?

Prakash: There is really no roadmap to know how robotics will take off in a particular country. For example, the first wave of industrial automation took off in the 1970s in the automotive sector in the U.S. But today, Japan and Germany are the leaders in advanced manufacturing.

Abishur Prakash and his geopolitical book.

Because of its scaled and desire to leapfrog other nations, China is different from any other country, except maybe India. That’s because China is actively using automation to rapidly develop and grow its economy, pushing robots in every sector, from manufacturing and logistics to public safety and border security.

While I see robotics taking off across the board in China, I think the more important question is: What will its robotics niche be?

I think Europe’s robotics journey will be largely dependent on the EU. There’s Horizon 2020 and the European Defense Fund, which could spur military robotics across the region. At the same time, Europe faces challenges from the so-called Brexit, balancing public policy with productivity, and demographics.

Until recently, European robotics companies have done well because they were the biggest and only option for local users. The rise of Asian robotics companies — and those acquiring European ones — creates new challenges. I don’t know if European robotics companies can compete in Asia, especially in areas of intellectual property and costs. This will fundamentally affect the European robotics scene — will it become more startup-focused, more frugal, more niche, or more Europe-focused?

As for the U.S., it’s similar to China, meaning that it’s in a category of its own. The U.S. is developed country with leading inventors and investors. Nobody compares to DARPA or Silicon Valley when it comes to robotics innovations. However, industry leadership depends on more than having the most advanced technology; the government also has a role to play in encouraging and using automation to elevate the nation.

In addition to robotics and AI, your geopolitical book discusses space mining, food cloning, “designer babies,” and more. Do you see a role for robotics in these areas?

Prakash: Definitely. Space mining is essentially another vertical for robotics because practically all of it will be handled by autonomous systems, including the shuttle, orbiters, rovers, and bases.

When it comes to designer babies, we are talking about humans designed a certain way. This is important for robots in the laboratory or clinic and beyond. What happens when people can customize humanoid robots a certain way, like after a celebrity? What happens if people want to begin marrying their robots?

As for food cloning, it’s too soon to know how big a role robotics will play. At the same time, I think robotics is going to play an ever-increasing role when it comes to food security. For example, in Japan, researchers have created a drone that can pollinate plants in the absence of honeybees. That’s a huge development.

More on Geopolitical and Robotics Policies:

Where do you expect future robotics hubs or robotics powers will be?

Prakash: Beyond the U.S., China, and Russia, what really gets me excited are the less obvious robotics players. For instance, Saudi Arabia is trying to pivot away from oil, a millennial is the deputy crown prince, and it has hundreds of billions of dollars in savings.

I’ve said it many times: Riyadh should invest $50 billion or $100 billion into robotics. Just imagine of Saudi Arabia became the world’s biggest robotics funder for startups.

Another set of countries is ASEAN, the economic bloc in Southeast Asia. In the 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s, several of these countries were called the “Tigers of Asia” for their economic growth. Will these manufacturing powers re-establish themselves with the help of robotics?

If they do, will it be because they develop their own capabilities, such as robotic arms, or because they import expertise from other countries, like South Korea, Japan, or China?

How do you think the structure of robotics companies will change as geopolitics becomes an increasingly important variable?

Prakash: They will need to think more like investment banks or resource companies when it comes to having a global footprint and focusing not only on opportunities, but also new challenges.

I believe robotics companies will become the next cybersecurity companies, as they will need to protect products from cyberattacks, including those that are state-sponsored. Is that something we’re thinking about today?

In addition, robotics providers and users will need to have people responsible for monitoring and responding to policy. What happens if a government begins taxing factories that use automation technologies, which in turn discourages businesses in a given territory from buying robots? Enterprises need to start working with legislators immediately to get ahead of these issues.

Will geopolitical concerns drive robotics, or will robotics drive geopolitics?

Prakash: Probably a bit of both. I think geopolitical tensions like those we are seeing with NATO and Russia, India and Pakistan, or in the South China Sea will drive military robotics. But the next wave of autonomous weapons and AI-directed cyberattacks will create their own geopolitical challenges.

As I noted in my book, technology companies will begin driving geopolitics, putting governments in the reactive seat. Before, it was the opposite: Governments drove geopolitics, and companies reacted. The Arab Spring, where protestors communicated through Facebook and other platforms, is a very early example of this phenomenon.