Wednesday, February 25, 2009

An Open Letter to the Obama Committee Selecting the new U.S. Chief of Technology

The new stimulus bills will only help the American economy long-term if they help create domestic job-creating industries rather than stimulating demand for foreign products.  Unfortunately, thus far, there is not one dollar in these bills to support what could be a high-growth, high-income, high-job creation industry vital to America's future: robotics.  And the 20 members of the Congressional Robotics Caucus have not produced a single news item for anything robotic in the past 120 days.

Society is experiencing significant aging which impacts industry, healthcare and our daily lives. Robotics facilitates a higher degree of personal autonomy, new methods for manufacturing closer to the customer, an entirely new industry in terms of services, and new technologies for security and defense.  Robots and robotics are loaded words implying replacing workers in the workforce.  In fact, the opposite is true.  If the U.S. were to seize the lead in this innovative industry, it could be a source of not only national income, but hundreds of thousands of new jobs.

The auto industry and its ancillary businesses could almost immediately yield benefits from strategic investments in improved robotic technologies to aid their industries.  Improving manufacturing productivity, after all, is one of the keys to saving the U.S. auto industry - and the millions of jobs that depend upon it.

The healthcare industry is at a similar crossroads. The current application of robotics technology to provide tele-operated surgical solutions represents the tip of the iceberg. Robotics technology holds enormous potential to help control costs, empower healthcare workers, and enable aging citizens to live in their homes longer by the use of patient monitoring robots, robotized motor-coordination, intelligent prosthetics, robot-assisted physical, cognitive and social therapy, and robotized surgery. Yet they remain unviable alternatives as these procedures are not covered by insurance.

Revolutionary technologies are available now to increase worker productivity and revitalize manufacturing, particularly in small businesses. Small scale (micro) manufacturing can utilize these new technologies to accelerate the transition of manufacturing back to America. It will take investment dollars to spur this on - to be the driving force. Yet not a dollar has thus far been earmarked for anything robotic. Nowhere! Not in any of these stimulus or bailout bills!

Robotic-related public/private initiatives are prevalent in Europe, Korea and Japan. These partnerships address important regional social issues (senior healthcare in Japan and Europe; increased productivity in many parts of Europe; etc.). But not here in the U.S. [with the exception of military, defense, NASA and security projects].

I was so outraged by these facts that I rechecked the research -- with the same result. Not a single reference to anything robotic in the House Bill, the Senate Bill or the final American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. And not a peep from the Caucus. Nor from any of the Chief Technology Officer candidates.

How can that be?

Robotics is the next transformational technology comparable to the introduction of the personal computer, yet since the days when it was first established in America, almost all of the robot manufacturers have moved away from the US. Most robots are built in Europe or Japan. CMU, MIT, Stanford and a few other research centers have clusters of innovative regional robotic providers mostly funded by NASA, DoD and DARPA research.

I'm frustrated! It's hard to be hopeful under these conditions. But I do hope that you – the people on the selection committee for the new CTO – will take notice and select someone who is robot friendly, supporting his interest with strategic investments and public/private initiatives initially focused on small businesses, the auto industry and healthcare.

Perhaps Rodney Brooks (MIT, iRobots, Heartland Robotics) could be persuaded to take the job.

NOTE: This piece came from my participation in a robotics conference (International Expert Days) last week in Germany. It became clear to me that America was and is at an unfair advantage in the area of robotics because of the public/private initiatives prevalent in Europe and Asia -- and the lack of any similar partnerships here in the U.S. Hence, this article.