July 07, 2017      

Robotic advancements are occurring worldwide on multiple fronts. From artificial intelligence in a jetliner cockpit to “digital building,” there’s no industry that’s untouched by automation. However, progress isn’t a foregone conclusion, as job fears, trade restrictions, and geopolitical tensions affect robotics and AI.

Robotics Business Review has partnered with me to bring you this roundup of recent robotic advancements. Are you ready to be updated?

AI lands Boeing 737

Although commercial aircraft use autopilots all the time, takeoffs and landings still require human pilots — at least for now. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has successfully completed a trial using artificial intelligence to operate a plane.

DARPA used tested the Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System, or ALIAS, created by Cambridge, Mass.-based Aurora Flight Sciences Corp. It was used to fly and land a Boeing 737 in a simulation. ALIAS combines a robotic arm with AI to control different functions of the plane.

While this is a huge milestone for self-operated planes, it comes amid increasing uncertainty around how exactly to regulate such technology. In addition to transport laws, insurers will have to determine their own requirements.

Who is responsible if such planes crash, are delayed, or land in the wrong city? Would passengers be comfortable traveling on a plane that has less insurance because it is operating like Uber?

Until these and other questions are answered, many of these robotic advancements will remain in the trail phase.

Robot-only construction

Last year, I proposed a new term to measure robotics in a given country: new robot density, or NRD. Here’s another: robot-only construction, or ROC.

ROC is fast becoming a reality. Two Swiss companies and a team of researchers at ETH Zurich are moving forward with plans to build the world’s first “digital building.” This will be a three-story structure designed and constructed completely by robots and 3D printers, with no human help (see above).

Unlike other areas of robotic advancements where people are concerned about potential job losses, such as with self-driving cars, construction is “under the radar.” According to one report, by 2020, about 500,000 jobs in construction could be replaced by ROC.

If entire structures can be designed by AI and built by robots, then every worker in the construction industry could face new competition. faces a risk to their jobs.

At the same time, the skillset people have in this industry is not easily transferable, so they would need retraining or something like a universal basic income, which has been proposed in Hawaii and tried in Finland.

At the same time, many developers cite shortages of skilled labor as an impetus for ROC. The large-scale effects of such an industry disruption remain to be seen.

China ties up with Europe, again

On July 5, Nokia Corp. and Xiaomi Inc. signed a deal that will enable both companies to cross-license patents to one another. While this does not include all patents that both companies own, it covers “essential patents,” which are required for products to comply with certain requirements

In addition, both Finland-based Nokia and China-based Xiaomi plan to work together in several areas, including AI and virtual reality.

This is the latest instance of a major Chinese firm joining hands with a Western company to partner on new technologies, including robotics.

Baidu's Self-Driving Research Goes Open Source; AI Moves Past Human Input

For instance, U.S.-based Nvidia Corp. partnered with Baidu Inc. to “democratize” AI. Last month, Baidu also partnered with Germany’s Robert Bosch GmbH and Continental AG to work on self-driving cars. Weeks after that, Alibaba.com entered Europe with its own AI offerings to compete with Amazon.com Inc.

China’s workforce and robotics demand, plus government support, have given Chinese technology companies confidence as they seek partners and investment targets around the world. While it’s unquestionably an opportunity for Western companies to gain access to the world’s second-largest economy, there are also risks.

The concern cited most often is that Chinese corporations could take the intellectual property around robotic advancements that they want and then end partnerships. Both sides of international collaborations need to do their due diligence around intentions, regulations, and long-term automation strategies.

Irish unions prepare to fight robots

A recent gathering of trade unions in Ireland saw fears of robots get raised. The general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Patricia King, said that trade unions will “resist” any attempt by companies to exploit workers through robots. They will also oppose any “anti-strike” laws that stem from the use of these new technologies.

The comments by King reflect what will become a trend among unions across the world: resist robots and any changes they bring. This is likely to create a tug of war between companies deploying robots, unions who want to protect workers and governments who need to grow the economy.

In the end though, unions may be in the weakest position because, unlike in the past when companies needed workers and debates with unions revolved around pay and benefits, when it comes to robots, companies don’t need these same workers, and that means unions will have little to offer to stop jobs from going to robots.

More on Global Robotic Advancements:

Robotic competition includes geopolitical undertones

Following the implementation of the Trump administration’s restrictions on immigration, an all-woman’s team from Afghanistan and a team from Gambia were denied visas to partake in a robotics competition.

Neither Afghanistan or Gambia is among the six countries listed in ban, but that may not matter. The Gambian team was eventually granted visas, but as with debates around the H-1B visa, national policies could have a direct effect on robotic advancements, hiring practices, and trade.

These case-by-case denials could be a new way of limiting the movement of people — including students and skilled workers — without going through executive orders and congressional approval.

At the same time, the desire to protect one’s domestic job force seems only natural with the rise in nationalistic sentiments worldwide. The White House has said that unfair trade practices are a bigger threat than automation to American jobs.

What does this mean for U.S. robotics? Just because your employees do not originate from a country affected by the immigration ban does not mean they won’t face potential setbacks.

Robotics companies in the U.S. hiring abroad or relocating employees into the U.S. need to prepare for unexpected restrictions that could disrupt their operations.