reflections

Jul 31, 2013 | 01:59 GMT

4 mins read

Technology's Impact on Geopolitics

A 'Robear' helping robot lifting a woman during a demonstration in Nagoya, Japan.
(JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images)
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Whether controlling fire, building a ship robust enough to cross an ocean, traversing space or enabling instant communication across the world, technology provides people with the tools to overcome limitations. Two technologies in particular that have been in the news recently — robotics and batteries — have the potential to alter the global geopolitical landscape.

On July 29, The Japan News reported that the International Organization for Standardization would compile safety standards for robotics developed in Japan that are designed to assist the elderly. Only months ago, in February, Japanese-made battery-powered hybrid assistant legs, which help those with limited mobility to walk, were given safety approval.

Japan is a global leader in robotics technology, mostly by necessity. With an aging population, Japan needs alternatives — whether foreign workers or robots — if it is to combat the reality of a shrinking workforce and achieve economic growth. The country is already the largest user of industrial robots, with approximately 300,000 units operating primarily in manufacturing, many of which are in the electronics and automotive industries. The further development of robotics technology could mean that robots could one day fill more jobs that were once occupied only by humans. They could also provide childcare, enabling women to more easily return to the workforce. Both of these would provide Japan with the opportunity to maintain its gross domestic product for a small, productive and largely wealthy population despite its unfavorable demographic situation. In addition, robotics technology could become a new export for the country.

What is a Geopolitical Diary? George Friedman explains.

Of course, there are complications with the development and implementation of robotics technology. Powering a robot labor force would require an enormous amount of energy, a fact that could limit the size of a potential robot fleet. The higher demand for energy could increase its cost to the point that it becomes too expensive to power the robots, limiting the scope and scale of inherently energy-intensive technologies. Improved battery technology has the potential to help mitigate some of these energy issues.

In order for renewable energy sources such as wind and solar to take a larger share of the global energy market, storage capabilities need to improve. Improved battery technology is one option for providing sufficient storage. However, scaling batteries to have a storage capacity sufficient to support a grid remains a challenge.

On July 28, a group of companies in the United Kingdom announced the start of a pilot project to test a battery that would have a six-megawatt capacity. Although that is a small amount compared to conventional power plants, which often have capacities of hundreds of megawatts, it is an important benchmark in establishing the viability of this type of technology. Initial results are not expected until 2016, and large-scale commercial adaptation of these batteries is even further away.

The benefits of improved battery technology could reach beyond energy storage for electricity production. Batteries with a higher energy density (the amount of useful energy stored in a specific system per unit of volume) will advance a number of technologies. As the physical space needed to store a specific amount of energy gets smaller, so do the size and weight of the battery. This could help advance a number of technologies, including expanding the range of electric cars or enabling the operation of sophisticated technology in remote locations, the latter of which would have significant implications for military operations (not to mention robotics technology).

However, adequate energy density is only one factor to consider in developing battery technology. The rate at which a battery discharges and the number of times that it can be recharged are some of the additional factors that must also be taken into consideration. Nevertheless, affordable and reliable renewable energy — with the aid of battery technology for storage — could eventually help resource-poor countries such as Japan to rely less on imports of conventional energy.

Robotics advancements and battery technologies have the potential to help Japan mitigate its demographics problems. Japan is not alone in facing an aging population; Germany, South Korea and others could also take advantage of robotics. In addition, if battery technology improves to the point where renewable energy's contribution to global energy supplies can significantly offset the world's reliance on hydrocarbons, it could not only aid in the advancement of a robotic technological revolution but could also alter long-standing energy dynamics in the world, substantially shifting geopolitical relationships.

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