How Government Can Help America Lead in Robotics

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Experts fear automation and robotics get a bad rap. 

To secure America’s position as a leader in next-generation robotics development, the government must refine rhetoric around the tech, boost investments in it and construct a clear-cut, achievable vision around where the nation needs to be, industry experts said Tuesday. 

“We have an election coming up and one of my fears is that we are going to demonize robotics,” Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation, said at a panel in Washington hosted by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. “We are going to tell people ‘the reasons you don’t get a job in this industry is because of automation and robotics,’ which simply isn’t the case.” 

While much of the event was spent discussing the lack of strategic American initiatives to promote the tech, Burnstein highlighted the influence of the National Robotics Initiative, which was led by President Obama’s administration. He said perhaps the most significant impact of that initiative was that it established that the government believed that robots and automation would make the United States more competitive and it showed the public that the government trusted the emerging technologies would ultimately be good for humanity.

“When we move away from that and say negative things about technology and we play into the fears, we miss out on these opportunities,” Burnstein said. 

Eric Krotkov, chief science officer at Toyota Research Institute, agreed. Krotkov spent years at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, where he said he invented the robots that were used to diffuse roadside bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq. Krotkov stressed that the government has to work to improve education and training for—and about—robotics and automation. 

“Mostly for our workforce ... but also for the public. There are a lot of issues that are bothering people,” Krotkov said. “Trusting systems and their privacy, for example. Talking about these issues and educating people about them I think would be valuable to us as a society.”

But, when it comes to robotics adoption, enhancing public exposure is not enough to help the nation keep up with other stakeholders that it lags behind. Panelists agreed that the government has to infuse cash into mechanisms that already exist to ensure that America can keep up with its adversaries and other global players. 

“As a country, we are competing with China—who is all in on robots and automation—and Japan, and the [European Union],” Burnstein said. “We don’t invest to those levels, OK, and we don’t have a national strategy like that.”

ITIF President Robert Atkinson also emphasized the necessity of increasing federal investments in the budding tech. He noted how other countries are drastically out-funding America’s investments in robotics and automation. Atkinson said Japan is investing 40 times as much as the U.S., while Germany is investing 20 times as much.

“China is investing 2 orders of magnitude more—minimum,” Atkinson said. “So yes, we need more zeroes here.”

The panelists also agreed that the nation can do a better job with coordinating one solid and  succinct strategy around the future of robotics development. They explained that America has an incredibly innovative ecosystem, but it’s made up of many disconnected initiatives. 

“There’s a lack of coordination, there's a lack of an umbrella around [our initiatives] and there’s a lack of a vision on where we want to be,” Burnstein said. “We believe in these technologies, we believe they are central to our competitiveness going forward, but there has to be more coordination.”