Saturday, July 31, 2010

Congressional Caucuses and Robotics

In late 1961, as President Dwight Eisenhower was preparing to leave office, he carefully warned of a process which I believe parallels our situation today:
Throughout America's adventure in free government, our basic purposes have been to keep the peace; to foster progress in human achievement, and to enhance liberty, dignity and integrity among people and among nations. To strive for less would be unworthy of a free and religious people. Any failure traceable to arrogance, or our lack of comprehension or readiness to sacrifice would inflict upon us grievous hurt both at home and abroad.

We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted.

Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.

The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.
Reading these words is a sad experience for me.  Eisenhower really had people and the world of people in mind when he developed and delivered this speech. And he had the perspective of having been a General in war needing and using equipment and a President during a peaceful time, keeping that peace while encouraging and growing the civilian economy.

Bringing this message home to the robotics industry involves a discussion on research in America versus the rest of the world, and the politics of representation to get funding for the industry.  The former has been incorporated into most of my blog entries, particularly the article on financing the strawberry project.

Getting government funding for defense and civilian research and development is what I want to talk about here. There are two Congressional Caucuses today representing the robotics industry. One is educational; the other little more than a platform for lobbying to expedite funding. One addresses industrial and service robotics (which includes UAVs of all types) with a goal of providing a roadmap (including a funding roadmap) to help tackle America's fledgling robotics industry (or watch it be lost to off-shore companies); the other is focused on unmanned aerial devices for the DoD and Homeland Security with little, if any, attention to civilian uses.

Which one do you think will have the biggest impact on America and our long-term strategic goals for continued American life as we know it? The Robotics Caucus. Which one is getting all the attention and money? The UAV Caucus, of course. And that is because of their focus to provide access to Congress for lobbyists from the defense sector.

CBS Sunday Morning did a piece entitled: "Our Future Is Already in the Hands of Robots" and included the following quote:
Enthusiasm for robots on the battlefield, it seems, is only outpaced by the speed with which the military is acquiring them, says the author of "Wired for War," P.W. Singer

"We went into Iraq with a handful of drones; we now have 7,000 in the inventory," Singer said. "We went into Iraq with zero unmanned ground vehicles that are robotic; we now have 12,000.
UGVs and UAVs are a big business right now as are all companies providing products and services to support our war effort. But war spending isn't good for the public, particularly when most of the spending is being spent off-shore. The public may be listening to the Tea Baggers but they know and are experiencing the loss to the economic well-being of our country - and their households - by the trillion dollars we've spent on the Iraq and Afghan wars. We are bankrupting ourselves while the military-industrial complex is thriving. Voters know this. That's why James Carville's maxim "It's the economy, stupid" is as applicable today as it was then. Except that I would add President Eisenhower's warning to the maxim:
"... [and] guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex."
Nevertheless there is some non-defense funding. Mikell Taylor at IEEE Spectrum reported that in 2009 there were at least six venture capital investment firms funding robotic start-up companies.