Robotics suppliers that have a multinational presence or those that are pondering new partnerships and markets need to know the risks posed by U.S.-China trade disputes. This week, we also look at how South Korean AI investments could surpass other contenders, as well as drones for defense and disaster response.
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South Korean AI leadership to surge in 2020s
Robotics development: South Korea, which is already a leader in industrial robotics, will gain momentum in AI in the early 2020s, according to the McKinsey Global Institute.
Right now, South Korean AI trails China and the U.S. in investments and deployment. By 2023, however, it could overtake both of these countries in terms of AI “introduction,” said the U.S. research firm.
In addition, an “AI divide,” which I have talked about several times in the past, could emerge.
Geopolitical dignificance: As South Korea makes a play for AI leadership, its strategies, policies, and investments may not necessarily bear fruit in the short term. No country can be certain that its path to market dominance is straight or that its standing will be permanent.
The big question is how and where will South Korean AI and related technologies develop? There are several areas. The first is talent. By 2020, South Korea will create six new schools to train people in AI, and its government hopes to create more than 5,000 professionals in AI.
The second area is AI chips or semiconductors. By 2029, Seoul wants a fully functioning South Korean AI chip industry. In May, South Korea unveiled a $2 billion investment in AI, with R&D into processors being one of its main focuses.
Samsung has earmarked $22 billion for investments into emerging technologies. It has also registered the most patents for AI chips in the world.
The third area is defense. In February, South Korean defense firm Hanwha Group partnered with public research university KAIST to develop weapons powered by AI. This sparked a global boycott, forcing the project to change.
However, this isn’t the only South Korean AI project for the military under way. By 2025, South Korean AI could advise commanders on what to do. The systems would look at all kinds of data, such as locations of troops, weapon capacity, and areas where enemy soldiers can move. It would then suggest various military options. Note that all of these South Korean AI goals are set for the next decade.
South Korean AI initiatives are not very different from what’s happening in other countries. For example, even as South Korea wants locally produced AI chips by 2029, China’s Baidu unveiled a new processor this past June.
And while South Korea wants AI military advisers by 2025, the U.K. was planning in 2016 to test an AI system called “STARTLE” that would advise British warships on potential threats at sea. All of this begs the question that, even if South Korean AI introduction does “beat” the U.S. and China, will it make a difference when other countries may be ahead?
U.K. turns to drones for national security
Robotics development: The British Ministry of Defense (MoD) is conducting trials of drones to replace humans in chemical attack investigations such as the one into the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Srkipal and his daughter Yulia.
The drones are scanning sites where authorities suspect that chemical or biological weapons have been used. This prevents human investigators from interacting with potentially dangerous agents. The drones can identify chemicals with lasers.
Geopolitical significance: Turning to robots to deal with such threats is not just about the safety of investigators, but is also about the speed in finding out what exactly has happened and stopping future attacks.
While the U.K. looks into “robot investigators” today, the U.S. has been using such robots for some time now. For example, in 2016, the Federal Bureau of Investigation used robots to investigate a bag in New Jersey. The robot found five bombs in the backpack, one of which went off.
In China’s Tiananmen Square, robots equipped with stun guns monitor tourists, while in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province, other policing robots are monitoring a train station.
For the U.S. and China, the goals are similar: cracking down on terrorism. In the U.S., the government is worried about bombs. For China, the government is worried about the Uighur population conducting terrorist attacks.
But there are other national security risks beyond terrorism such as natural disasters. Here, robots are being used as well. As Hurricane Florence made landfall this month, drone pilots were preparing to launch drones into the sky as soon as possible to help with disaster relief.
Researchers used unmanned underwater vehicles to track Hurricane Florence, and other teams are developing robots and drones for firefighting.
In July, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched a project called SHRIMP (SHort-Range Independent Microrobotic Platforms) that is focused on creating microrobots to explore and respond to natural disasters.
And last November, six years after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, a robot named “Mini-Manbo” finally reached the Unit 3 reactor, one of three reactors which failed. It helped assess the damage that had been done.
As robots help countries deal with security and disaster challenges, they are also another way for nations to grow their geopolitical influence. In August, Russia was reportedly in talks to supply Uzbekistan with a policing robot. That same robot had already been tested in Kazakhstan in July.
Russia was also in talks with other countries in the Middle East and Central Asia, as well as with South Korea and China. In the future, Russia could supply nations across the continent with security technology. At that point, users and competitors will have to question whether there is any Russian bias in how its technology is designed and applied.
AI, robotics in the middle of $467B in tariffs
Robotics development: As the Trump administration plans a further $200 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods (10%) and threatens a further $267 billion in tariffs, robotics and AI suppliers and users could be caught in the middle of the disputes between the world’s two largest economies. In fact, of the $200 billion in new tariffs, $23 billion have to do with “Internet-connected devices.”
Geopolitical significance: The escalating U.S.-China trade conflict is a major example of why robotics firms must pay attention to the changing geopolitical landscape. And things are not likely to improve anytime soon.
Last month, China refused to accept a U.S. demand for changes to how it handles technology development, specifically the forced transfer of technology. After the new tariffs, it is unlikely China will change its position on this sensitive issue.
Even if sales of Chinese robots do wane, which appears to be happening even with uncertainty around the cause, China is more likely to swallow the loss than change its policy. This is a reminder that automation just isn’t a large enough portion of countries’ economies yet to force radical changes. This could change, but for now, robotics is viewed as an enabler for manufacturing and other industries.
Equally important is that even if China doesn’t change its tune on technology policy, automation may surge in the U.S. anyway, as higher tariffs force companies to turn to robots and reshoring of production.
And if there is already anger toward China for its trade practices, U.S. factories might turn to other suppliers such as Japan, South Korea, or even domestic firms. This would create even more challenges for China, which wants to become a global robotics and AI power by 2030 and needs to grow its market share in key robotics industries to do this.
Trade restrictions could also affect international investment and U.S. startups.
Will this trade war will have any big impact on the trajectory of AI and robotics in the U.S. and China? Even if these sectors are targeted by tariffs, industrial automation might just experience a brief slowdown. While talent and innovation are international, Europe, Asia, and North America are all equating automation leadership with economic self-reliance in their recent rhetoric.
From how things look right now, things could move either way. For example, China’s “Made in 2025” initiative has rarely made headlines since the trade talks became heated. But at the same time, China’s deployment of AI and robotics hasn’t slowed down.
The automation sector could play “devil’s advocate” in the ongoing trade war, losing in some areas but benefiting in others. Robots, autonomous vehicles, drones, and AI could be among the few sectors to benefit from forced economic shifts.