Event Report: The State of Robotics Innovation in America

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Cindy Wagner

Cindy Wagner

Information Technology & Innovation Foundation panel at Rayburn House Office Building, July 16, 2019.

The United States cannot remain competitive on the world stage without increased investment in robotics, AI, and other advanced technologies, warned panelists gathered by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation at Rayburn House Office Building July 16, 2019.

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), co-founder and co-chair of the Congressional Robotics Caucus, noted that the nation grows fastest when it embraces innovation and that “robotics and related fields will be major drivers of the global economy in coming decades.” The United States must be a leader in this field in order to improve Americans’ quality of life, he said. The caucus focuses on promoting production, development, and adoption of robotics as well as pursuing policies to help train workers to go along with the new technologies.

Robotics and AI are the “two most important technologies going forward to improve the United States,” stated moderator Rob Atkinson, president of ITIF. There have long been dire warnings about unemployment resulting from new waves of technological innovation, but “they never came true in the past. They won’t come true in the future,” he said. In fact, the United States is not adopting robotics as fast as it should, he argued, because we’ll need to increase productivity to help pay the bigger entitlement bills coming up with the retiring baby boomers. “If we don’t figure out a way to raise productivity, the U.S. government is going to run out of money very quickly, and we’re not going to be able to afford entitlement payments.”

Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation, described the key areas in which robots are “making lives better,” including work in warehousing, retail, logistics, medical work, drug discovery, and food production, as well as toys and entertainment robots and domestic robots. Enabling technologies that will help take domestic robotics beyond today’s vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers include mobility, AI, machine vision, and gripping. He stressed that robots in these applications do not replace human workers but make them more effective. For instance, robots handling retail tasks such as inventory allow human workers to interact more with their customers.

Eric Krotkov, chief science officer for Toyota Research Institute (TRI), stressed that the robotic systems under development represent collaborations between humans and machines. TRI’s autonomous vehicles, for instance, are not just “chauffeurs” but also “guardians.” In domestic situations, such as socially assistive robots for helping seniors, robots need to be more versatile than those in factory settings, he said. TRI is also pursuing fleet learning, so that when one system learns, all others learn as well.

Stuart Shepherd, Universal Robots regional sales director for the Americas, described work toward making robots more maneuverable and flexible in order to make them better co-workers with humans. Among the company’s customers, these “cobot” and human collaborations have been 85% more productive than either humans or robots working alone, he said. It allows people to be more creative—and jobs to be more interesting. Shepherd also advocated for the “appropriate use of artificial intelligence,” which “shouldn’t be a fear to us. If it gets to be a problem, turn it off.”

David Vasko, director of advanced technology for Rockwell Automation, emphasized that robotics is about expanding humans’ possibilities by improving their tools. Robots can perform repetitive tasks that are hard to get human workers to do. Robots will make manufacturing more successful and able to employ more people; if we can “upskill these workers, they’re going to have better jobs and higher pay than they’ve had in the past.”

Collin Sebastian, head of software products and engineering for SoftBank Robotics America, described the company's work developing the AI and machine learning that are powering robotics networks and enabling robots to learn from each other. Two areas where labor shortages are critical globally are truck driving and health care, and Japan is accelerating robotic development to fill these gaps, he said. In the future, investing in the augmented workplace and in job retraining are “mission critical” to the United States remaining as the leading global innovator. To develop the new technologies, teaching computer science has to go beyond coding and programming and be more about software engineering. “If we can rally the education system around producing better technologists, we’re good to go,” he concluded.

On display during the event were SoftBank’s humanoid robot, Pepper, and Universal Robots’ collaborative robotic arms.

View video of the event, including questions and answers.

Cindy Wagner is AAI Foresight’s consulting editor and editor of Foresight Signals. Feedback may be sent to CynthiaGWagner@gmail.com.