October 20, 2017      

Governments around the world are beginning to respond to the many security challenges posed by automation. Is artificial intelligence spying on you? Could foreign-made robots put national security at risk? What will happen as civil wars and other conflicts turn to robotic soldiers?

Robotics Business Review has teamed up with me to round up these recent developments in global robotics, AI, and unmanned systems. As we catch up after RoboBusiness 2017 last month, are you ready to be updated?

Google’s Home Minis eavesdrop

Google’s Home Minis are a smaller version of the Google Home, a personal assistant that consumers can ask questions and request services through. As with Amazon’s Alexa, privacy critics have accused the Home Mini of recording what users are saying in their homes, even when they aren’t using the device. This is counter to what Google’s devices are supposed to do, which is to “wake” when certain verbal commands are said.

Google Home mini

Google Home could be a point of vulnerability.

Google, Amazon, Apple, and other leading technology companies must address customer concerns as automated household systems become more intelligent and people grow suspicious of exactly when these devices are listening and what they are collecting.

The real question though, isn’t whether these privacy gaps are addressed, but will people continue buying such devices even if such security challenges persist? Consumers have been willing to share data online and via mobile devices. Might increasing familiarity with virtual assistants and robots lead to similar vulnerabilities?

Another question is whether people will worry about using robots from another country. Although many electronics used in the U.S. are made in China, Americans might feel more paranoid about their privacy if their home robots are foreign-made. Could negative public opinion prompt the U.S. government to take action over potential surveillance through such robots?

DJI introduces privacy mode

Speaking of the U.S. and China, Dajiang Innovations Science and Technology Co., or DJI, has been making headlines recently. First, the U.S. Army banned its troops from using drones from Shenzhen, China-based DJI because of cybersecurity concerns.

Shortly after this ban, DJI unveiled plans for an offline mode that stops data from being sent (rumored to have been developed to ease U.S. government fears). The company plans to introduce this feature as a privacy mode in its next update.

The local data mode won’t even allow the DJI app to know where a user is and will continue to store videos/pictures on the drone itself.

Although DJI has explicitly said the mode is for its enterprise customers, uncertainty remains whether large organizations or governments will trust a Chinese firm or if they will still view this mode as a “front” to hide surveillance by Beijing.

Self-driving bill advances

Just over a month after the SELF Drive Act was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, a U.S. Senate committee has approved the American Vision for Safer Transportation through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies (AV START) Act. The act would enable faster deployment of self-driving vehicles. It would also balance federal and state jurisdictions in handling transportation matters.

Public policy is becoming central to the future of robotics and AI, and self-driving cars could be the one of the first areas of robotics that legislators worldwide tackle. As much as the AV START Act and SELF Drive Act provide a regulatory framework, it remains to be seen how effective such laws will be in “pushing the envelope” of both encouraging and restricting innovation.

Perhaps that is Washington’s plan all along — to limit its own role, create parameters, and allow self-driving car companies to operate independently. If that’s the case, then the pace at which autonomous vehicles develop and are deployed could rise exponentially in the coming years.

Ukraine builds a robot army

Ukraine has been at the center of tensions between the West and Russia, and its residents face ongoing danger. But now, another variable is entering the picture: robots.

The Phantom is an unmanned ground vehicle that can be armed with machine guns, anti-tank weapons, and more (see image above). The robot can operate even if communications are down through a “backup microwave-communication link.”

Military robots threaten to change the geopolitical situation. It’s possible that the Ukrainian army could deploy it to regions where Russian-backed groups are fighting. If this happens, it could set the stage for Russia to indirectly supply its own robots to aligned forces in Ukraine. In other words, in the coming years, robots could be the new soldiers fighting on both sides.

This also changes the rules of war, as governments delegate more combat roles to robots. In my book, I dedicate an entire chapter to such security challenges, which have enormous implications for the future of stability and peace around the world.

More on Global Robotics and Security Challenges:

GM’s self-driving cars to take Manhattan?

While much of the attention around self-driving cars has gone to technology upstarts such as Tesla, Uber, and Google’s Waymo spinoff, the major automotive manufacturers are making strides, too. For instance, General Motors Co. has submitted an application to the New York State Department of Motors Vehicles to test self-driving cars in a part of Manhattan in early 2018.

If approved, this trial could be a good demonstration of how ready driverless cars are for the real world. The broad streets of California (where Waymo is among the companies conducting tests) may have traffic, but they don’t have the weather or other complex conditions of the Northeast. In Boston, Nutonomy is one of the companies testing self-driving cars.

Can GM’s vehicles navigate the complex streets of Manhattan? Will they be able to identify people, objects, construction, and more with ease? How will GM, the New York City government, and insurance companies behave if an accident takes place?

In addition, although GM’s application doesn’t mention it, cyber security challenges will be important to autonomous and connected vehicles. What’s to stop a hacking group from hacking into one of these vehicles as they roam Manhattan’s streets?