Our Robotic Future

by Gabrielle DeMarco on August 16, 2011

The economy is still struggling. Quality jobs are harder to come by. And the population is aging with limited structure and technology to care for them. What could help relieve the economic, emotional, and physical pain felt throughout the United States?


Experts and leaders around the country are hopping on the semi-autonomous bandwagon to support the development of robotics technology that will transform our economy, produce jobs, increase worker safety, and support our aging population. Support for robotics technology as a key economic enabler has been endorsed by high profile scientists around the country, economists, and even President Barack Obama.

Earlier this summer President Obama announced a first-of-its-kind, $70 million National Robotics Initiative to develop “next generation robotics.” This initiative came about thanks in large part to the concerted efforts of the robotic science community.

One important force in helping to set this new, national robotics agenda is our own Professor of Computer Science Jeff Trinkle. Trinkle is an international expert in robotic touch and movement. He worked with several of his colleagues around the country to help push for and set the national agenda for robotics in important ways.

Their combined vision of robotics as an important economic and societal engine was compiled in a comprehensive document called The Robot Report. The report served as the basis for the new Obama administration initiative and set the groundwork for what the future of robotics could look like.

I spoke with Trinkle at length about The Robot Report and the new National Robotics Initiative and he had some exciting insights on how a strong, national focus on robotics technology and funding could change the way we work and interact:

I had a paper in the first IEEE Conference on Robotics and Automation in 1984.  Since then, the advances in robotics fundamentals, products, and applications have advanced tremendously.  On the applications side, the most obvious trends have been:

• Factory automation leading to higher quality and throughput (especially in the automotive industry)
• Medical applications resulting in procedures not previously possible and reduced recovery times (especially in the area of minimally invasive surgery)

Today many advances are just starting to work their way into application, and in the process, are putting many businesses that are open to embracing robotics on the cusp of new products and higher productivity.  Some of the recent successes were underwater repairs at the Deep Water Horizon accident and damage assessment at the Red River flood.

I view all of the above previous advancements as Robotics 1.0 – 1.9.  Robotics has come a long way since 1984, so that we are now at a point where we can start a new phase, Robotics 2.0, with a new emphasis.

Robotics 2.0 will have a strong focus on human collaboration and social issues.  This has been made an obvious next step by the advances in the mechanical components [of robotics] including better sensors (e.g. the Xbox Kinect), perception algorithms, cognitive science, machine learning, physics engines, and control algorithms.

Robots that can collaborate productively with people will expand the kinds of jobs that people and robots can do.  2.0 robots will have to be predictable, reliable, and safe, and be able to learn from people, their own experiences, and information sources on the Web.

The National Robotics Initiative I has been set up to support needed fundamental research AND tech transfer to industry and government agencies.  In the short term, expect to see robotics technologies embraced by small and large companies to help them compete and create jobs – robots will not eliminate jobs.  Over the next 20 years, expect to see a new class of robots capable of standing in for home nursing assistants, co-workers on factory floors, and more.

The industrialized nations are all facing seriously reducing fractions of citizens in the working years of their lives.  Without increased productivity and numbers of high-value-added jobs and robots to help maintain our aging population, the US will witness a continual decline in living standard.