What does the radically changing political landscape in the United States going into 2017 mean for robotics research, public policy on STEM education, and the workforce?
Predicting the future, never an easy enterprise, seems even more difficult in the current political environment. However, in an era where developing a working consensus on national priorities seems elusive at almost every level of American political life, the desire to maintain the nation’s leading position in robotics is one area where there appears to be broad agreement.
In the run-up to the November 2016 election, 150 academic and robotics industry experts published a report, The Roadmap to U.S. Robotics, to provide guidance to congressional policy makers on the opportunities that must be harnessed to maintain the country’s leadership in robotics. The third such report since 2009, when the first Roadmap was presented to the congressional caucus and spurred the 2011 creation of the National Robotics Initiative, this document looks ahead to upcoming challenges in manufacturing, research, public safety, health and the workforce with regard to the rapid development of robotics and associated technologies.
WHAT IS THE ROLE FOR CONGRESS?
How will Congress act to ensure that the nation benefits from advances in robotics technology while maintaining the safety and economic security of its citizens?
We reviewed some of the Roadmap’s key suggestions with an aide from the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology to find out how issues raised in the Roadmap might be acted on by the legislature. Led by Republican Lamar Smith of Texas, the Committee on Science, Space and Technology is responsible for “reviewing and studying, on a continuing basis, all laws, programs, and Government activities dealing with or involving non-military research and development” according to House of Representatives rules. The committee’s purview includes directly funding robotics research through a number of channels, including NASA and the National Science Foundation.
In addition to direct funding of robotics research through National Science Foundation grants and the robust robotics development programs at NASA, the committee is also concerned with monitoring progress in robotic technology in areas like Homeland Security, nuclear facility maintenance, autonomous drones, robotics in commercial space applications and transportation, where the need to support and provide regulation for driverless vehicles is a high priority.
STEM education is additionally a high level priority for the committee. As an example, Chairman Smith sponsored legislation in 2015 to expand the definition of STEM education to include computer science out of a belief that educating citizens to have expertise in computer science is essential to the nation’s future.
The Roadmap to U.S. Robotics calls out the increasing need for robots to function in a collaborative manner with human workers in manufacturing settings, a consideration which is recognized and supported by the congressional committee with the understanding that the highest value use for robots in manufacturing is as work partners, according to an aide.
As laid out in the Roadmap, robots require human handlers in most manufacturing settings, which means that workers must be provided with the skills to effectively use robots as tools and that the interfaces through which users interact with the robotics be refined to the point of being easy to use and flexible without requiring substantial programming knowledge.
RESEARCH TAX CREDITS AND PRIVATE SECTOR DEVELOPMENT
In addition to the robotics research that is directly funded by Congress through NSF grants and within organizations like NASA, legislators also effect robotics development in the private sector through business and industry with tax policy.
Not surprisingly, Science Committee Chairman Smith is a strong supporter of research tax credits and other mechanisms such as accelerated depreciation to reward investments in technology. Still, Congress recognizes its important role in directly funding big technology research that is not feasible for companies to undertake alone and funding through the National Science Foundation remains an important part of congressional policy toward robotics.
HOW WILL THE U.S. REMAIN A WORLD LEADER IN ROBOTICS?
The Roadmap document notes that the U.S. is currently a world leader in productivity thanks to heavy investment in robotics, keeping the United States competitive in a world economy that has seen tremendous growth in places like China, India and others. In fact, the report notes that the U.S., though currently lagging behind China in manufacturing, is likely to overtake China by 2020.
Continuing investment in automation is necessary to maintain this trajectory and the report also notes that while foreign competitors are increasing investment in improving manufacturing processes, investment in the United States remains flat. Congress’s efforts to support both publicly and privately funded robotics research and development that supports manufacturing growth will have a major impact on the U.S. economy going forward.
While congressional policy makers take a high level view of investment in robotics research, allocating funding through government agencies that ultimately determine which particular grants will be awarded, the Roadmap to U.S. Robotics offers a guide to the anticipated progress of robotics across all areas in the next five, ten and fifteen years. Among them are advances in mechanisms and actuators, mobility, sensing and communication, perception and learning, safety, and the ability of robots to function in dynamic environments, collaborating with each other and with humans. The report also calls for greater development and use of large-scale robotic test-beds to enable more collaboration among researchers and the ability to work with larger scale experiments.
WHAT WE HOPE FOR IN THE YEARS AHEAD
Well-informed and forward-thinking legislative policy toward robotics is essential. Legislators must strive to make the best use of opportunities to fund, regulate and support robotics development, including providing a skilled workforce to engage with robots as developers and co-workers. This is necessary to maintain and hopefully even advance the United States’ position as a leader in robotics and hence as a leading economy.
The Roadmap to U.S. Robotics informs congressional policy in conjunction with the discussions policymakers have with personnel in many agencies throughout the U.S. government as well as business leaders and community representatives. The good news for those concerned with robotics development is that while a new administration is likely to bring change on many policy fronts, one policy issue that won’t change is the importance of robots and smart machines.
The text of the full Roadmap to U.S. Robotics 2016 edition is available at https://www.robotics-vo.us/node/562
This article was published in the March/April 2017 issue of Robot magazine. Click here to purchase a copy.