Thursday, February 11, 2010

Robotics Received Just One Sentence in the President's Stimulus Message

In a recent Washington Post op-ed piece, Google's Eric Schmidt described why America has an innovation deficit and suggested ways that stimulus might change that situation.
We see it reflected in our search trends at Google: Too many people are out of work, and the fear of unemployment is changing the behavior of millions more. 
We have been world leaders in innovation for generations. It has driven our economy, employment growth and our rising prosperity. 
But much of the cutting-edge research and development in key and critical areas now takes place outside the United States. 
We can no longer rely on the top-down approach of the 20th century, when big investments in the military and NASA spun off to the wider economy.
Schmidt is saying is what I have found to be true in robotics funding.  Other than DARPA, DOD and NASA, funding for robotics is not directed or strategic.  In other countries, however, strategic funding is reaping benefits that are placing America farther behind in robotics development, deployment and manufacturing.

Here is Schmidt's five-point prescription to invigorate American technology innovation:
  1. Start-ups and smaller businesses must be able to compete on equal terms with their larger rivals. They don't need favors, just a level playing field. Congress should ensure that every bill it passes promotes competition over protecting the interests of incumbents.
  2. Encouraging risk-taking means tolerating failure -- provided we learn from it. If we want to be a leader in new industries such as green energy [and robotics], we have to accept that some of our investments won't pan out.
  3. We need to invest more in our knowledge base. The decision by Congress to double science funding last year was a big step in the right direction. Now we need to extend the R&D tax credit so businesses can confidently invest in their future.
  4. Information must become even more open and accessible. Government-funded research should be made public through "a Wikipedia of ideas," so entrepreneurs can harness ideas commercially. Broadband is a major driver of new jobs and businesses, yet America ranks only 15th in the world for access. More government support for broadband remains critical.
  5. We need to hang on to talented people. The best and brightest from around the world come to study at U.S. universities. After graduation, they are forced to leave because they can't get visas. It's ridiculous to export such talent to our competition.
Yes, all these points are fine. But there are more important issues going on. There is a perception that robotics takes away jobs which is not being factually countered.

National Robotics Week - an awareness program initiated by a few companies and America's major tech universities - is a good first step. However, the government's consistent omission of robotics in their stimulus proposals is, to me, a sad surrender to the cry from unions and others that robots take away jobs.

Instead of arguing that retraining and innovation and strategic funding create jobs, we are steadily giving in to these ill-founded claims and eroding our possibilities to lead again in technological innovation.