AQ Feature

Robots in Your Future

Getting a grip on technology—before it gets a grip on us.
Robots, technology, Latin America
Photo: Illustration by Neil Stevens

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Latin American policy makers should prepare for the technological shifts coming their way.
The robots are coming! Is Latin America ready?

By 2025, a driverless vehicle will navigate rush-hour traffic in Mexico City or São Paulo. A criminal group will use a drone to attack security forces or critical infrastructure somewhere in Latin America. And at least one government in the region will face a major crisis due to job losses caused by robotics and computerization.

These predictions may sound like fantasy. But in fact, the technological innovations they imply are already starting to make their presence felt in Latin America. To paraphrase author William Gibson, the future is already in Latin America—but it is unevenly distributed.

Given current trends in technology, the first two predictions are a near certainty and may happen much sooner than 2025. The third, while likely, is fortunately less certain and might be prevented if governments act soon.

Each of these three predictions has major implications for Latin American governments and citizens as well as businesses investing in the region. But considering the many traditional challenges facing Latin America—from poverty to threats to public security and the region’s hard-won democratic gains—dealing with the policy implications of robot-driven cars isn’t going to win many votes. Yet, Latin American politicians and regulators can and should work to adapt, and prepare for, the technological shifts coming their way.

Who’s Behind the Wheel?

When the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) invited competitors to create a self-driving ground vehicle that could navigate a 142-mile (228 km) desert course as part of its first Grand Challenge in March 2004, every one of the 15 vehicles that entered the competition failed—miserably. The best one only made it 7.5 miles (12 km).

One year later, however, five vehicles completed the 132-mile (212 km) course. By 2007, six vehicles completed a 60-mile (97 km) urban course that required them to follow all standard traffic laws. By April 2014, Google had driven its fleet of autonomous cars a total of 700,000 miles (1 million km) without a single computer-caused crash (though two crashes due to human error have been reported).

Many of the companies working to create the hardware and software for self-driving vehicles feel that the biggest challenges do not involve the technology, which is progressing rapidly. Nearly every engineer working on the issue believes that within the decade, self-driving vehicles are going to be safer and more efficient than those driven by humans. A McKinsey & Company study published in March 2015 estimates that mass adoption of self-driving vehicles in the U.S. will lead to 90 percent fewer auto accidents and $180 billion per year savings in damage and health-related costs, in addition to the thousands of lives saved. Computers don’t get tired or drive drunk—or get distracted by text messages.

Anyone who has dodged oxen and potholes on the roads of Nicaragua or has navigated Mexico City’s traffic jams knows that self-driving cars in Latin America will face challenges that aren’t present on the roads of Nevada. Still, there is little doubt that driverless technology is in the region’s future.

Social acceptance and government regulation will largely determine how quickly these vehicles hit the road. Right now, both seem to be in short supply. Many people are understandably uncomfortable with the idea of sharing the road with driverless cars (never mind that human drivers kill thousands of people every year through error or neglect, and that the number of automotive deaths in Latin America is particularly high). Policymakers have invested little energy in exploring an issue that, right now, appears distant and unrelated to their daily responsibilities. Meanwhile, taxi drivers and others involved in public transportation are far more concerned about ride-sharing platforms like Uber that might put them out of a job now than a technology that might put them out of a job several decades down the line.

While both a low level of social acceptance and the initial high cost of the technology itself mean that there will not likely be massive numbers of robot-operated vehicles appearing on the roads of Latin America by 2025, there will inevitably be consumers and companies who take the cars out on the road to test them, whether or not they are legally allowed to do so.

Additionally, the software and hardware used to create those cars may be within the grasp of Latin American companies that believe they can produce similar vehicles more cheaply than U.S. manufacturers can. It is likely that individual hobbyists or small technology startups will attempt to assemble their own prototypes. This would no doubt represent a boon for innovation in the sector, but could also lead to cars that are less safe. Thus, regulations governing the safe construction and use of self-driving vehicles in Latin America may turn out to be needed earlier than anyone expected.

Other key issues regulators should be concentrating on include cybersecurity and insurance. On cybersecurity, a recent demonstration by DARPA showed that even some of today’s human-driven vehicles can be hacked wirelessly. Policymakers will need to create some sort of regulatory organization to identify and remove these vulnerabilities. They will also need to implement policies regarding the liability of auto manufacturers and software developers for failures in the software system. Even if the experts are correct and the vehicles are safer, there will inevitably be some accidents. The insurance industry will need to model out the new risks and determine who may be financially liable—whether it is the owner or the software programmer—when a robotic vehicle is responsible for an accident.

Self-driving vehicles aren’t just an issue within countries, but also between countries. Twenty years after signing the North American Free Trade Agreement the U.S. and Mexico have only recently resolved their disagreement to allow some Mexican truck drivers to operate in the United States.1 Setting rules for self-driving cars and cargo trucks that are likely to be part of transborder commercial fleets in 10 to 15 years is going to be a much heavier lift. Beyond opposition from current cargo truck drivers—a political issue in both the U.S. and Mexico—both countries are going to need compatible standards on software, hardware, safety, and insurance regulations before politicians and public opinion allow those trucks to cross.

The New Lords of the Skies

Then again, the first group to attempt to bring autonomous vehicles across the border may not care about the regulatory environment.

While automotive and technology companies need to worry about regulatory approval, criminal groups can adapt and utilize robotics for their own ends with impunity.

A decade ago, unmanned aerial technology was largely limited to a few governments around the world. Today, hobbyists around Latin America are building some impressive robotics applications at incredibly cheap prices. A quadcopter that can be preprogrammed with flight patterns can be purchased for under $1,000.2

While there are plenty of fun, legal uses for these hobbyist robots, their inexpensive and easy-to-use nature makes them an attractive tool for creative criminal organizations as well.

An unmanned aerial drone recently crashed near the U.S.-Mexico border with a shipment of methamphetamine that traffickers were trying to transport into the United States. Given that cheap off-the-shelf or home-built drones cost far less than the drugs they might traffic, losing an occasional machine is a small price for the criminal groups to pay. Similarly, a commercially available remote-controlled helicopter was used in São Paulo in 2014 to send contraband into a prison. One criminal group in Central America is reportedly using cameras on quadcopters to monitor police operations.

As these machines become more readily available, several groups are working on the software that would allow them to “swarm”—to communicate with one another, fly in formation and change their actions based on one another’s movements without human intervention.3 While there are numerous positive applications for swarming, military and otherwise, the increasing availability of this technology also means criminal groups will eventually have the ability to simultaneously launch dozens of pilotless aircraft with drug shipments, thus overwhelming authorities’ efforts to interdict.

However, the nightmare scenario is not drug trafficking, but rather some form of weaponization.

The move from payloads of hobbyist cameras, drugs and prison contraband to something more threatening is not much of a leap. The weaponization of drone technology does not necessarily imply that criminals will have aircraft similar to the Predator drones with Hellfire missiles operated by U.S. forces. A criminal group would likely start with a quadcopter that carries a small explosive payload—like a grenade—and a mechanism to activate that explosive upon impact. Or, hypothetically, it may use the aircraft itself as a weapon against a police helicopter or communication tower.

A majority of the region’s militaries have purchased or are considering the purchase of unmanned aerial technology, or are developing local versions of unmanned vehicles with both military and civilian uses.4 However, most law enforcement agencies and militaries so far appear not to have taken seriously the potential for criminal groups to use that technology. Given the very real current threats in the region, including high levels of criminal violence and small-arms trafficking, a hypothetical high-tech threat is understandably not at the top of their list of concerns. It may take an actual attack before the region is serious about the issue.

Robots vs. Humans

As worrying as the prospect of criminal groups operating weaponized drones might seem, it’s far from the most significant or urgent challenge posed by the coming robot invasion of Latin America. Robotics and other emerging technologies are reshaping economies and societies across the world, and the pace of change is almost certain to increase in the coming decade. From an economic perspective, one of the most important impacts will be the industries where robots and computers are likely to replace people. When robots produce better quality goods, are more efficient, or improve safety conditions, human beings are going to lose jobs.

In their 2012 book Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution Is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy, economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee write: “We are in the early throes of a Great Restructuring. Our technologies are racing ahead but many of our skills and organizations are lagging behind. So it’s urgent that we understand these phenomena, discuss their implications, and come up with strategies that allow human workers to race ahead with machines instead of racing against them.”

That book and much of the debate about the coming restructuring of the economy focus on the developed economies of the U.S. and Europe. For Latin American analysts, it’s important to consider that the economic growth sectors over the past 15 years unfortunately overlap quite well with the sorts of jobs that computers and robots are expected to replace.

For example, auto manufacturers who moved jobs overseas to find lower labor costs are increasingly using automation to lower those costs further. Mining companies are experimenting with machines to replace humans at the deepest levels of the mines, which would improve safety, but would also put tens of thousands in the region out of jobs. While no machine has yet passed a Turing test,5 in which humans are fooled into believing a computer is human during a conversation, computers are rapidly becoming more capable at handling the basic levels of conversations that make up much of the current demand for the call centers that are springing up all over Central America.

It’s not just lower-paying industries that will be impacted by this trend. Computers increasingly have the processing power and pattern recognition skills to accomplish jobs that require a higher level of education, including accounting,6 paralegal research7 and professional translation.8 A generation of students in Latin America has been told that education is the key to a middle-class job, but within a decade, some of the jobs they trained for will be performed by computers instead.

In Latin America, these technology-induced disruptions are likely to exacerbate economic inequality and to harm the working families who just recently reached a middle-class standard of living. For a region that is already among the most economically unequal in the world, technological and economic trends that could lead to increased inequality should be a serious concern.

Fears of technology replacing jobs and harming the working class aren’t new. In the nineteenth century, a group of British textile workers known as the Luddites led a futile effort to destroy the machines that eventually replaced them. Economist John Maynard Keynes warned of “technological unemployment” in 1930. But you don’t have to be a Luddite or a pessimist to believe that this issue needs to be discussed. Even technology optimists who think our hemisphere’s citizens will ultimately benefit from the robot invasion understand that every wave of change brings about winners and losers.

It’s better for society and the overall economy if we begin to implement intelligent regulations now that will avoid unnecessary pain later, and find a way to provide a social safety net that will cushion the blow for those caught on the losing end of economic disruption. At a basic level, there will be a need for greater social safety nets and some forms of assistance to prepare people for new jobs. At a more structural level, policymakers need to debate the education and economic policies that may be required as economies are swiftly reshaped by technology.

Doing the Right Thing

Getting policies right for issues like self-driving cars and unmanned aerial vehicles is tough, but doable. Latin America isn’t significantly behind the regulatory curve. Even in the U.S., only a few states have passed rules regulating self-driving vehicles, and the Federal Aviation Administration is just this year getting around to publishing regulations on civilian drone use. Once the region’s policymakers realize that these safety issues are less than a decade away (if not already here today), they will, hopefully, begin to act.

However, addressing the impact of robotics on the economy and the labor market is much more difficult. How does the region prepare for a technology revolution that will upend millions of jobs and dozens of industries vital to regional economies? How can Latin American countries prevent the inevitable wave of economic disruption from escalating into a crisis of political stability?

There is nothing Latin American governments can or should do to slow technology’s progress in their countries.

Instead, they need to find ways to embrace the positive aspects of robotics. Even if the above sections appear a bit pessimistic, the potential of self-driving cars to reshape urban transportation, of unmanned drones to remake the logistics industry, and of robotics in general to make industries more productive and to push the boundaries of what is technologically possible could provide great benefits to Latin America and the rest of the world.

Some of the policies needed to address advances in robotics are obvious. Nearly everyone agrees on the importance of building educated, innovative and adaptive workforces. However, the reality of building those workforces requires Latin American governments to make politically difficult choices. These include raising taxes to pay for investments in education from pre-kindergarten to post-graduate levels that will enable the next generation to succeed.

Additionally, while government investment in research and development is essential, innovation is really going to come from the bottom up. Policymakers need to streamline the process of building businesses and—perhaps more importantly—of creating cultural and legal frameworks in which innovative, technology-driven businesses can fail productively. Innovation requires entrepreneurs to take risks, but they are less likely to do so when harsh bankruptcy laws and a culture that punishes unsuccessful risk-takers in the business environment hold those entrepreneurs back.

On education, small-business creation, social safety nets, and regulations, the policy choices made in the next 10 years are going to determine whether Latin America embraces the benefits of robotics or faces a new lost decade, as it did in the 1980s. The economic transition to a greater use of automation and artificial intelligence is going to disrupt economies and create social tension, but some of the difficulties can be mitigated and some opportunities can be grasped if the region begins acting early.

The most important step is to get more of Latin America’s politicians, think tanks and civil society to discuss and debate the coming technology revolution. Unfortunately, many of the hemisphere’s political leaders spend more time discussing Cold-war era disputes than technology issues affecting the vast majority of Latin America today and into the coming decade.

The region’s politicians aren’t going to spend time discussing robotics until they feel pressure from voters and civil society.


Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: robots, defense technology, Latin America