Robotics & Geopolitics: AI, Service Robots Come From Unexpected Places

Service robots prepare bowls of food at Boston restaurant Spyce. Source: Eugene Demaitre

July 06, 2018      

Most robots may be in factories and warehouses, but some service robots and artificial intelligence applications are popping up in a wide variety of uses. From robot restaurants to virtual health coaches and animatronic stunt doubles, automation is spreading worldwide.

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?

Service robots work at Shanghai restaurant

Robotics development: Alibaba, the world’s largest e-commerce company, has opened a “robot restaurant” in Shanghai called “Robot.he.”

Customers use an app to book their table, order food, and pay the bill. Food is delivered by service robots that move on tracks placed next to the tables. Once the robot arrives, it opens a lid for the customer to take the dish. It then returns to a “loading zone” to receive more food.

Geopolitical significance: Most nations have been industry-specific in their development and use of automation. For example, Japan is mainly focused on industrial automation and healthcare, while parts of the U.S. focus almost entirely on agriculture.

This regional approach has not only limited where robotics businesses can sell, but it may have also influenced which automation applications develop.

China, however, is the exception. Only in China is the full spectrum of service robots being leveraged. In China, close to 25% of schools (60,000 schools) are using AI to mark student work.

While AI marks tests, drones have been delivering packages for JD.com since March 2016. They have clocked over 300,000 minutes in flying time.

Last month, Baidu said it has begun mass production of China’s first Level 4 self-driving bus, with more than 100 such buses already produced.

In seven Chinese cities like Hangzhou, Macau and Suzhou, Alibaba’s City Brain is controlling traffic and crime, while in Shenzhen, Huawei has jointly created China’s first “city-wide traffic brain.”

Alibaba City Brain isn’t just for city management. In Sichuan, the AI is being used to grow pigs and ensure food safety.

The city of Beijing is looking at facial recognition and palm scanners for its subway system. This will allow people to walk into subway terminals without having to stop to swipe their cards.

And in Hong Kong, AI is creating the schedules for when engineers and other staffers should work.

To top it all off, China has its social credit system, which is ranking citizens based on how they live and function. It was launched in 2014 and could be throughout China by 2020.

The way in which robotics and AI is deployed is as important as what is being developed. And when it comes to deployment, China is beating the rest of the world.


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U.K. looks to Japan for robot healthcare

Robotics development: The National Health Service (NHS), the universal healthcare service of the U.K., is taking a page out of robotics playbook from Japan, Hong Kong, and South Korea. In the future, the NHS will be using robots to help people suffering from dementia.

In addition, AI will be used as “virtual health coaches” to push people and families to adopt healthier lifestyle habits.

Geopolitical significance: As countries around the world develop a robotics strategy, they are increasingly looking to more advanced robotics powers, such as those in Asia, for input and inspiration. What China, Japan, and South Korea are doing is fast becoming precedent for the rest of the world.

As countries develop robotics strategies, it is a huge opportunity for robotics firms to participate and help make these strategies come to life. In fact, this may already be taking place.

The Future of AI Act is proposed legislation that includes the technology industry as advisers and could lead to an official AI strategy for the U.S.

The recent White House AI Summit involved major U.S. AI and tech companies, including Alphabet, Amazon, and Facebook.

Of course, robotics businesses aren’t limited to their own countries. They could also work with foreign governments.

For example, after the Canadian government unveiled a $125 million AI strategy, which included setting up a AI research institute called “Vector,” Google came along and invested $5 million into Vector and announced Google Brain Toronto, its second such office in Canada after Google Brain Montreal.

In other words, Canada’s AI strategy is becoming partly dependent on a U.S. AI company. As robotics businesses think about new ways to capitalize on the market, helping governments develop a blueprint orĀ roadmap could be one way forward.

After all, robotics is a new arena in which nations are competing with each other in and having a strategy could be the surest way to win.

Disney develops animatronic stuntmen to replace humans

Robotics development: Disney is working on a project known as “Stuntronics.” Within this project is a robot named “Stickman,” which is an autonomous humanoid stunt double that can perform dangerous stunts.

The robot is humanoid and can be outfitted with different costumes, depending on the role it has. Disney might use such service robots for more than just movies. The animatronic robots could also be part of shows and attractions at Disney theme parks around the world.

Geopolitical significance: Disney’s work is cutting-edge, and it points to something important: Automation isn’t just coming from factories or banks. It is coming from unexpected places, like from a movie studio.

With fears about automation taking jobs at an all-time high, this shouldn’t be overlooked. As governments think about ways to deal with automation, the first step is to know which workers may be affected. And, the workers affected may not be only the “expected” groups.

For example, some technology observers expect pathology work to be automated, but how? One way is autopsies — specifically “virtual autopsies.” These autopsies use service robots to scan a body, inside and out, to create a 3D rendering. Then pathologists analyze the virtual, 3D model without affecting the real body.

There’s also the role that automation will play in cooking. In Boston restaurant Spyce, all the chefs are robots. Because robot chefs reduce costs, the restaurant can sell food for as cheap as $7.50 a bowl.

Automation is also affecting tourism. At the Museum of the Great War in France, a robot is helping people from around the world explore different exhibits, including the trenches of World War I.

Alongside all this, the next “Mad Men” might be robots. Alibaba has developed an AI system that can generate 20,000 ad lines in a few seconds. In addition, it passed the Turing test, which sees if a machine is indistinguishable from a human in its responses.

And McCann Japan’s AI creative director is producing ads that executives prefer over the ads humans are producing. (See below.)

Of course, no robotics business is saying these innovations will explicitly replace workers. But that isn’t the point. Governments must think about how automation can affect unexpected industries and what this could mean for workers.

Whether or not automation takes jobs, one thing is certain: Robotics businesses are flourishing and are coming out with innovations that will affect all aspects of society. Autonomous, robot stunt doubles may be just the beginning.