Sad, but true. Now I don’t know if Confucius ever said that, but it seems that many American inventors and entrepreneurs developing innovative technologies for the U.S. military are finding more support from Chinese investors than from the Pentagon. For example, Neurala, a Boston start-up that makes robots and drones got little response from the American military when it needed money. But it landed an investment from a state-run Chinese company.
Beijing is encouraging Chinese companies with close government ties to invest in American start-ups specializing in critical technologies like artificial intelligence and robots to advance China’s military capacity as well as its economy. The size and breadth of these Chinese-U.S. deals are not clear because start-ups and their backers are not obligated to disclose them. Over all, China has been increasingly active in the American start-up world, investing $9.9 billion in 2015. Chinese investors have money and are looking for returns, while the Chinese government has pushed investment in ways to clean up China’s skies, upgrade its industrial capacity and unclog its snarled highways.
I bet that Donald Trump could personally help Neurala and other American technology start-ups, and make America Great Again. Save U.S. budget dollars by NOT flying his whole family around the world and NOT going to Mar-a-Lago every weekend. Maybe he too could begin investing in America’s future, just like the Chinese!
Sometimes our desire to find the technological solution(s) to our problems exceeds the reality of what technology really can do. Let’s go back to Africa where I spent some time earlier this month. Park rangers in Kenya, as well as other African countries, play a critical role in preventing poaching (killing for sport or profit) of endangered species living on these governmental preserves. Sometimes, however, investments in high-tech solutions get in the way of needed financial support for the manpower needed to patrol and protect the endangered animals living on these lands.
Despite the critical role that rangers play in the poaching crisis, conservation organizations tend to overlook the need for everyday resources. Donors outside of Africa want to see sexy, high-tech solutions like drones and ground sensors and not hear about the need for warm clothing, boots and better food for rangers. Large nongovernmental groups spend huge amounts, yet there are rangers needing socks. “Our rangers were herders, but now they’re effectively soldiers,” said David Powrie, a preserve game warden. And the enemy are the poachers who have been known to attack and kill the rangers.
When rangers are well taken care of and receive appropriate training, poaching rates tend to drop. Technology can certainly help, but it is still only a tool that has to be used wisely in the hands of well-trained and financially supported rangers.
If you like the sight of “delivery drones” hovering over your head wherever you may be, then maybe the United Kingdom is the place for you. Not all Brits, however, are enthusiastic about this prospect. As one unhappy British citizen expressed: “They are testing the drones over here because they can’t do it in America. Whatever the Americans don’t want, I don’t want it either.” Talk about your trans-Atlantic alliances. Aversion to remotely controlled airborne technology may actually be strengthening international partnerships around the world. Amazon is in the forefront in the U.K. and retailers in other countries are already testing how these drones may play a more strategic role in their delivery of products that they sell online.
In Britain, Amazon is working with local authorities to test several aspects of drone technology like piloting the machines beyond the line of sight of operators, a practice still outlawed in the United States. It seems that much of the drone opposition is rooted in concerns for the historical preservation of the countryside that played a large part in Britain’s past. For example, the Friends of the Roman Road, a local organization that maintains centuries-old public footpaths near the Amazon drone testing site in Cambridgeshire, fear that the drones represent a threat to local wildlife and the wider countryside. Drones flying overhead would certainly detract from appreciating the historical significance of the Roman Road and the role it played in ancient times.
I guess we all know that times do change, but surely some things are worth preserving. Droneless skies over sites of historical preservation are well worth our consideration. Think of them as new types of “no-fly” zones.