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As robotics and AI sprint ahead, US must battle China for supremacy

As robotics and AI sprint ahead, US must battle China for supremacy
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“Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”

I’m sorry Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

In “2001: A Space Odyssey” Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke may have presciently described our robotic future. Google’s recent announcement of Duplex, An AI System for Accomplishing Real-World Tasks Over the Phone,” has once-again raised the issue of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.

The big question now is will we end up with the HAL 9000, bent on self-preservation at any cost? Or will we get his benign cousin who unfailingly follows Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

It’s less an issue about the technology itself, and more about the ethics surrounding the use of it. And the privacy. Here's an audio recording of Google's Duplex in action, making appointments and reservations over the phone. Would you realize you were speaking to a robot?

While Google’s Duplex is an AI system specifically trained for a narrow set of circumstances over the phone, it’s only the beginning. What if Duplex is integrated into robots?

Let’s explore two future scenarios. The first is a benevolent world served by the intelligent robots we’ve designed. The second scenario, where intelligent robots dominate future warfare and siphon jobs away, is probably closer to the truth for many.

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AI and robotics have the capacity to profoundly change the quality, and safety, of our lives. What was science fiction yesterday, is reality tomorrow. Imagine a fire-suppression robot that is able to enter into a blazing home, call out to the people inside, and create a safe evacuation route for the trapped homeowners.

Or an assistant, able to work 24 hours a day with only a small break to recharge. Or a drone that drops your delivery right on the kitchen table, and your robotic personal assistant puts it away in quick order.

The next space station could be completely built by robots, or “robonauts” as NASA likes to call them. The next industrial disaster could have robotic responders, able to go places that would kill humans, like Fukishima.

Call centers will become completely virtual, with the ability to detect both the language and accent of the caller. Superior customer service will become the rule, and not just the exception, as every conceivable messaging platform is covered by chatbots with the latest AI.

In a perfect world, nations would agree on the use of AI-enabled robotic systems, ensuring no machine alone has the ability to make life or death decisions. The United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) began meetings in 2014 to address such concerns.

But we don’t live in a perfect world. You take the world as you find it, not as you wish it was. There are nations who seek to gain power, extend influence and expand control using AI and robotics.

My previous article last week warned about China’s quest to dominate the AI and robotics domain by 2030. China, and their expansion in the South China Sea, will only fuel a new type of warfare.

It’s called LAWS, lethal autonomous weapons systems, and it’s the next space race. Being able to operate in denied areas will be a chief advantage of LAWS. It will also create the ability to take greater risks — never a good situation when conventional and nuclear weapons are in the mix.

On the technology side there have been numerous articles predicting the end of days. The potential loss of jobs, the shift in economic power and a new world order all have been foreseen by the naysayers. But there is merit to much of what “they” say.

A dairy farm in Michigan has deployed robotic milking machines using Swedish equipment. The system will be able to milk 1,500 cows. In January of 2016, the World Economic Forum published a report called “The Future of Jobs.” The net effect from 2015-2020 will be the loss of five million jobs.

Analyst firm IDC unveiled it’s “Top 10 Predictions for Worldwide Robotics for 2017 and Beyond.” These include by 2018 “30% of all new robotic deployments will be smart collaborative robots that operate three times faster than today's robots and are safe for work around humans.” IDC, however, also predicts “By 2019 the Government will begin implementing robotics-specific regulations to preserve jobs and to address concerns of security, safety, and privacy.”

Our government has always fallen behind legislatively when it comes to technology. In an attempt to change this, the White House held a meeting Thursday, May 10, with the tech heavy-hitters on AI. The White House is looking to see what government can do to “remove barriers to the technology and prepare the future workforce for it.”

The biggest investment the federal government can make in AI, and our head-to-head competition with China, is to level the playing field.

Last week I called out the unfair tactics China uses to steal intellectual property from the U.S. AI and robotics are the leading technologies that are being hijacked from under our very noses.  This by a country that imposes near-Draconian rules for U.S. business operating inside their borders but expects unfettered access to our research institutions.

In the future, for the U.S. to have a chance in the AI and robotics field, we should be saying “I’m sorry China. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Morgan Wright is an expert on cybersecurity strategy, cyberterrorism, identity theft and privacy. Previously Morgan was a senior advisor in the U.S. State Department Antiterrorism Assistance Program and senior law enforcement advisor for the 2012 Republican National Convention. Follow him on Twitter @morganwright_us.