The presidential race is an opportunity for voters to reassess U.S. technology policy.
By Eugene Demaitre
February 29, 2016
With “Super Tuesday” upon us, the race to the White House is on in earnest. The field of competitors has thinned, but it’s difficult for businesspeople and roboticists to guess what might happen after Election Day.
Why should we care? We’ve heard a lot of rhetoric about immigration, the economy, and foreign relations, but not a lot of reasoned alternatives for U.S. science and technology policy.
The choices that voters make will directly affect government spending on robotics in the next four years and beyond. With even the Obama administration warning that automation could eliminate many lower-paying jobs, shouldn’t candidates from both parties address that concern?
R&D spending leads the way
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Robotics Challenge offered $2 million and bragging rights to the first-place winner, but it ended last year. DARPA’s Robotics Fast Track program is offering $150,000 for short-term development.
Is that sufficient? What should the balance be between “pure” and applied research? Sure, basic technologies such as humanoid locomotion, communications, and batteries could benefit many robots, but how many university graduates end up with products in search of a problem to solve?
In a competitive, globalized environment, how should we protect intellectual property?
The U.S. arguably has an easier path to investment and commercialization than other countries, thanks to startup incubators and partnerships among companies, government, and academia.
How can it stay ahead of China’s investment, particularly in industrial automation?
Industrial automation: Boon or bane?
Some have touted reshoring as a potential benefit of industrial automation, which enables manufacturing to be more flexible, making production cheaper and thus easier to locate domestically.
The major automakers have been ahead in terms both of robotic assembly and reshoring, and they’re putting billions into artificial intelligence research.
The logistics and transport industry is also turning to automation, from warehouse robots to delivery fleets of self-driving vehicles and possibly aerial drones.
It’s in the interest of large and small companies to have consistent federal regulations, rather than have to worry about complying with a patchwork of state and local rules.
But it’s far from clear whether massive unemployment is an inevitable result of increasing industrial automation. Government and industry could head off such displacements with job retraining, careful study of affected roles and industries, and tax policies that encourage intelligent use of robots alongside humans.
Republican Marco Rubio has said that raising the minimum wage would “accelerate automation and outsourcing.” By contrast, John Kasich said that he encouraged high-tech industry in Ohio during his tenure as governor.
There are many sectors, such as agriculture and energy, where robots are already relieving job shortages and doing tasks that aren’t interesting or safe for humans. Making overdue repairs to America’s infrastructure would likely require significant use of robots.
How and where can the government encourage automation to make workers’ lives easier and more productive rather than simply replace them?
Healthcare costs affect robotics adoption
Would repealing the Affordable Care Act affect availability of prosthetics, exoskeletons, and robot-aided surgery? Maybe not directly, but any change in healthcare spending would affect patient care.
Although the Food and Drug Administration and insurers are just starting to approve treatments such as exoskeletons, the cost of healthcare in the U.S. is still rising.
Are caretaker and social robots for the young, mentally ill, and elderly preferable to humans? Or are Americans reflexively turning to technology to solve their problems rather than address the social causes and consequences?
As with other industries, there are some healthcare applications that are just being discovered, such as using SporoBot to help prevent malaria—and possibly the Zika virus as well.
Keeping robot soldiers on our side
Although we probably won’t see Boston Dynamics’ Atlas leading to Terminator-style killer humanoids within the next four years, there are still legitimate reasons for civilian oversight of military robotics.