While COVID-19 tore up cities like a microbial Godzilla, the potential of robots to automate a range of essential industries, such manufacturing, agriculture, and energy, began to look more like a key to human survival than a threat to our jobs and existence. Meanwhile Artificial Intelligence (AI) offered a means of finding new solutions quickly, or giving intractable social problems a veneer of digital neutrality. Both views held fast in 2020.
Why 'job-stealing' robots could turn out to be much needed friends in our current 'Life on Mars' reality
Robots can already run lights-out factories, manufacturing goods 24/7, 365 days a year. They can help run and maintain warehouses and keep orders moving. Robots can pick fruit, harvest crops, help irrigate fields, and – with the aid of drones and sensors – get fertiliser to where it needs to go. All of these things are currently a problem for humans in a locked-down world. AI-infused vertical smart farms are already bringing crops into brownfield sites in cities, closer to the mouths that need feeding.
Why? l this was on my mind as Lockdown #1 hit the UK in March, in a piece inspired by what I had been doing a year earlier: standing on Mars – a NASA backlot in Pasadena – watching scientists test a robot rover. Aren’t we all now living in an extreme environment, thanks to COVID-19? A provocative thought, but one worth having in 2020.
The factory of the future full of autonomous robots is being built - BMW, NVIDIA share their progress
The pandemic and resulting economic devastation ravaged the auto industry, cutting sales by half or more. After a challenging Q1 that saw sales drop by 20%, BMW now anticipates an operating loss in Q2 as the coronavirus lockdowns continue in the US and Europe. Nevertheless, the company remains committed to long-term strategies such as its Performance > NEXT program to considerably improve both its cost and financial performance.
Why? Manufacturing is certainly in the vanguard of change, via smart factories, connected systems, the IoT, and data analytics. In May, Kurt Marko reported on how BMW is collaborating with NVIDIA to develop AI-enhanced robots for materials handling and transport, to help it build custom-designed cars on a single production line. The message: Industry 4.0 technologies may help innovators weather the economic storm. See also: Smart factories - driving the automotive industry into the fast lane
Vendors have locked customers in to antiquated code, but not out of malice. The problem then becomes that it is impractical to fix these design flaws, because legacy programming environments can’t be easily ripped out and replaced in manufacturing – any more than they can in healthcare, another sector where highly regulated systems are being networked that were never designed to be.
Why? Could there be dangers in smart manufacturing by connecting robots to the internet? Trend Micro certainly thought so in August, when it produced a 45-page analysis of how legacy code could be used by hackers to compromise industrial systems and make robots ‘go rogue’.
In the US alone, Amazon delivers 2.5 billion packages a year – fewer than FedEx (3 billion) and UPS (4.7 billion). A combined 10 billion packages annually is roughly 27 million a day, just in the US. If, say, just 10% of those were delivered by drone, that would be 2.7 million drone flights daily – all over local areas, given the limited range. One percent would still mean 270,000 drone flights a day, still a huge increase in air traffic.
Why? Earlier this year delivery giant Amazon cleared the way for limited Beyond Visible Line of Sight (BVLOS) testing in the US, the first stage in drone deliveries becoming a viable proposition. But is this a sensible idea? My September report presented some staggering figures about what this might entail in the real world.
While US government statistics reveal that 94% of deaths on the road are down to driver error, impairment, or distraction, anyone who believes that a century of American auto culture is going to be swept away overnight by Waymo, Tesla, and Uber is kidding themselves. In China, autonomous vehicles is likely to be more quickly accepted, as the culture of car-ownership and freedom on the roads is not so deeply ingrained there. Yet Baumann is optimistic that change will come in the West, it is ‘just a question of time’.”
Why? Autonomous vehicles and driverless cars are another area of massive investment and development. But they are a decade away from arriving at scale and will demand a dedicated infrastructure. My interview with Dr Florian Baumann, CTO EMEA of Dell Technologies’ Automotive & AI business.
2020 is a year when societal tumult has accelerated many business and personal changes, feeding the demand for contactless, ‘socially distanced’ shopping, but 2021 will be the year autonomous retail sees mass deployments. While the foundation of autonomous retail has been built over the past several years, there are now signs that retailers are ready to experiment with the technology and various store concepts.
Why? For those of us who are still living and working in cities, ‘grab and go’ autonomous retail could become a reality, thanks to a mix of different automated systems, said Kurt Marko.
Where the public sector has often struggled is in expressing its need in a way that the market can understand, that civil society can understand. Sometimes we're trapped in our own language. We often don't work in teams to express that need. So we've set out a series of challenges to, in a sense, reveal the things that we'd like the technology sector to help us solve, such as 3D visualisation and planning consultation.
Why? In the midst of COVID-19’s assault on our world, London’s Chief Digital Officer Theo Blackwell observed that autonomous systems, sensors, and the connected world can still help human beings live together harmoniously, as long as need is matched with technology via a focus on open data.
No way, Huawei! Brexit Britain's decision to ban Chinese firm from 5G rollout will please Trump, but cripple the UK's infrastructure future
Requiring operators to remove Huawei equipment from their 5G networks by 2027 will add hundreds of millions to the cost and further delay roll out. This means a cumulative delay to 5G rollout of two to three years and costs of up to £2 billion.
Why? But all of this could be just a pipe dream if the supporting 5G infrastructure isn’t there – a challenge that the UK will be grappling with next year as it strips Huawei hardware out of its networks. That 2020 decision seemed designed to appease President Trump in his trade war with China.
There is no practical reason why trust in AI cannot be created now - Rolls-Royce’s bold ethical initiative takes shape
The announcement is based around two main elements. The first is an AI ethics framework that any organization across multiple sectors can use to make ethical decisions around the deployment of critical and non-critical applications. The second aspect is a five-layer checking system focused on the output of algorithms, with the intention of preventing biases developing undetected and building faith that they are trustworthy.
Why? AI is at the core of the smarter, greener, more efficient world promised by new technologies – despite occasional problems with rogue algorithms (A-level results, anyone?). Perhaps the dominant theme of diginomica’s 2020 coverage of this hot-button technology was its ethical dimensions. Yet there is no reason why trust in AI cannot be created now, suggested Stuart Lauchlan in his September analysis of Rolls Royce’s ethical AI initiative.
We'll never be able to fully adopt things unless we're transparent and we understand that we can get the value out of them. And we won't know what's what's going on in there. That for me is the key: to remain transparent and explainable, but that needs to happen at the right level and in the right way.
Why? For Capgemini, the key is transparency. If your organization can’t be open and transparent about its processes – about why it is seeking personal data, applying algorithms to it, or denying someone services – then it shouldn’t be doing those things in the first place.
If we don't have the uncomfortable conversations, the vacuum gets wider at both ends. With a lot of the black professionals that I work with in the tech sector, some of them feel uncomfortable talking about racism or biases within technology. And a lot of the white people that we work with also feel uncomfortable, because they don't know the right words to say and they don't want to be deemed racist. So the two sides don't talk, they don't come together to resolve these issues.
Why? A determination to be trustworthy and open is only one component of ethical AI. It is also vital to ensure that diversity, gender balance, and BAME representation challenge the status quo of coding being the preserve of young, white males. This demands some difficult conversations.
We understand that such uncertainty can naturally breed caution, but it also presents new opportunities: the digital foundations are in place for firms to now accelerate their automation and augmentation journeys. Equipping the workforce with the skills needed to capitalise on emerging AI technologies is the next major hurdle.
Why? Derek du Preez reported in August that Microsoft believes the UK is falling behind its competitors in the race to develop AI solutions and be ready for their adoption. But the UK is not alone, Derek suggested: decision-makers everywhere are less confident in the concept of AI at scale and are going back to basics [https://diginomica.com/executives-less-confident-ai-scale-2020-going-ba…]. At least, that was the view set out in PwC’s annual AI Priorities Report. The next one is due in early 2021: will the pandemic have changed things? It’s safe to assume it will have focused the debate.