What is the future of American robotics leadership?
MIT, DARPA, and Google continue to lead the world when it comes to advances in artificial intelligence, military robotics, and many other technologies. However, these organizations are now operating in a world where the U.S. is no longer the only center of gravity. Alternatives have popped up in the form of Baidu, SoftBank, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and more.
In an age where the U.S. finds increasing competition in fields it created, such as AI, American robotics leadership may come down to factors we’ll see at RoboBusiness 2017. The conference will be an opportunity to see how U.S. businesses are thinking and what policies to create.
The business mind-set
The programming at RoboBusiness next week deliberately ties automation to solving business problems. Sessions such as “Is Your Business Ready for Robotics and AI?” and “Training the Next Generation of Roboticists” will not only examine their respective topics, but they will also shed light on what U.S. enterprises of all sizes need to do to remain competitive.
How American robotics suppliers and end users (and their global partners) structure themselves will define how they innovate the next product or service and expand into new markets. Attendees concerned that their companies are falling behind can identify gaps to fill in order to regain leadership.
In addition to surveying the state of industry and automation, RoboBusiness in Santa Clara, Calif., will consider what the private and public sectors have yet to tackle, helping to renew American robotics leadership.
Creating new policies
Commercial applications of robotics, AI, and unmanned systems gets a lot of attention, but RoboBusiness attendees should also be aware of the importance of government. Building American robotics leadership will depend on the regulatory environment and investment policies as much as advances in sensor hardware, machine learning software, and IoT connectivity.
While rules themselves won’t emerge from RoboBusiness, it’s that the seeds of new policies will emerge. For example, the session on “Automating Your Operations to Optimize Production” could include a conversation about how to balance automating your business and protecting jobs.
This debate is becoming increasingly relevant, since countries such as India and South Korea have each unveiled measures with the intention of protecting jobs from automation. I’ve written about India’s ban on self-driving cars and South Korea’s robot tax in Forbes.
As the Trump administration continues to move forward with key policies on trade, immigration, and defense, the White House will highlight new areas in the coming months and years. Where do robotics and AI fit in — will they benefit from federal spending and R&D, or will they be caught in debates over job threats and reshoring?
I discussed this during the election season. Now that the U.S. president is trying to make good on his campaign promises, conferences such as RoboBusiness could provide Washington guidance on the future of American robotics and how automation will affect the global economy.
In addition, the U.S. could leverage robotics gatherings in the same way the German government uses Hannover Messe — as a tool of soft power. This brings a geopolitical element to the conference. How will domestic and foreign participants work together? If trade relationships with China, Russia, or Germany deteriorate, could there be restrictions on American robotics exhibits?
The National Institute of Science and Technology and NASA will be present at RoboBusiness, as will representatives from Silicon Valley, metro Boston, and Pittsburgh, all hubs of American robotics innovation.
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Seeing is believing
American robotics leadership is at a crossroads. While the U.S. leads in domains like artificial intelligence and military robotics, many U.S. companies are looking to Japan, China, or other nations for capital, production, or markets. Now more than ever, the U.S. needs a strategy to ensure its security and prosperity.
To do this, American robotics leaders should pay close attention at conferences. The challenge is to find the right mix of programming around technology, business, and policy, as RoboBusiness has strived to provide.
Facebook, Amazon.com, and iRobot are undeniable leaders in innovation and market share, but American robotics leadership is about more than them. It’s also about government supporting the local ecosystem. Other countries will be watching and copying the U.S. model, so it’s up to American robotics suppliers and users to show them the way.