June 05, 2014      

Although the Koreans and Japanese would probably take exception to the EC?s use of the word ?largest,? and maybe roll their eyes over a $3.8B investment in robotics as being on the light side, there?s no quibbling over the fact that the European Commission?s partnership with euRobotics AISBL, called SPARC, is nothing short of spectacular. If there is anything that the EU needs badly these days, it?s something spectacular. And with SPARC, the EU is looking to jump start a little magic in that direction.

sparc eu1

Crisis of innovation Europe, in finally getting the SPARC program up and running now at the beginning of Horizon 2020, is showing leadership, organization and money?lots of money. All sorely needed if the EU, according to MAire Geoghegan-Quinn, the EC?s Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, is ever to break free from what she calls an ?innovation emergency.? Economist Paul Krugman in The Age of Diminishing Expectations preaches: ?Productivity isn?t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything,? and that innovation is the key to productivity. With SPARC, robots will be looked upon to provide that ?spark? of productivity, as well as a decided boost to employment. Euro area unemployment for May was 11.8 percent, up 1.4 percent from April. Youth unemployment in places like Spain is over 50 percent. Whatever relief those sad job numbers can get will be well appreciated. Robots driving jobs creation? A recent Metra Martech study, Positive Impact of Industrial Robots on Employment, bears out some of this hoped for wellspring of productivity and jobs. ?One million industrial robots currently in operation have been directly responsible for the creation of close to three million jobs [worldwide],? so says the study. It goes on to predict, ?Industrial robots will create more than two million jobs over the next eight years.? Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn yearns for this new Europe where a breakout of high-tech innovation might deliver great products for commercialization that, in turn, might reinvigorate the local job scene and better society. Some heavy lifting for robots The EC?s own pages size the global robotics market as being worth ?$21.1B (?15.5B) a year, with some $4.08B (?3B) of that in the EU. The EU also has a 25 percent share of the global industrial robotics market, and half of the professional service robotics sector. By 2020, the whole service robotics market could be worth over $136.2B (?100B).? The difference between then and now will be $115B; that?s just six years off. Can SPARC?s robot Private-Public Partnerships pull off such a lofty number? My last trip to Europe I asked around if that old menace ?nationalism? would be a brake on this imminent robot assault on productivity. My questioning received shrugs except from the French and the Germans who seemed confident and resolved and ready. One Italian said that he sees it as a problem. Hopefully, the EU can rise above the old enmity, and compete as one. However, read enough of Arnold Pacey (The Maze of Ingenuity; Technology in World Civilization), and one is struck by the power of European nationalism to drive monumental successes in science and technology. The big bang in robotics From the standpoint of technical excellence, organization, leadership and financing, the EU could easily dash out ahead of other, less organized national robotics programs, pull off the big bang in robotics and become its powerful epicenter going forward. The maturity of the EU?s technologies and the scope of the participating universities and private corporations is very impressive, if not breathtaking. So, the means to a big bang is there. Is the will? Them?s fight?n words The best defense is a good offense, so goes the adage. It seems that the boys at euRobotics are quite willing to mix it up with any perceived detractors of their efforts or aims, as evidenced by Dr. Uwe Haass, Secretary-General, lambasting The Economist over its Rise of the Robots article. He begins with a rather benign observation,”…we would like to point out where we believe your recent special report ?Rise of the Robots? is not as balanced as it may have been in informing the public about the current state of robotics in the world.” The world, no less . “In particular, we are surprised that there is no mention of the almost ?1Bn European Commission funded programme within the Horizon 2020 framework that is currently the biggest single civilian robotics research programme on the planet.” And there’s the planet, no less. Then he cranks up the intensity and, in the process?as they say in Facebook-speak, ?unfriends? a whole bunch of folks:

?The narrow US military focus of the report compounded by its concentration on humanoid robots, a narrow sub-discipline with little current commercial value beyond advertising, does not communicate even the US viewpoint as expounded through the recent McKinsey report, which you also fail to mention. ?Few of the US robots you mention are commercially available, yet European companies sell significant numbers of useful and professional robots. This ranges from industrial robots that cooperate with human workers (such as KUKA’s iiwa), agricultural robots allowing ?precision farming?, undersea inspection robots (for example www.subsea7.com), through to automatic parking and driver support systems offered by all major European car and truck makers.?

That was a letter that would have been best to have gone unwritten, yet, unfortunately, sits in the open on the euRobotics homepage. Catalyst If the big bang in robotics is to come soon, it may as well happen in Europe. Europe is ready and needs it badly. SPARC may well be the right catalyst at the right time to foster such a big bang. SPARC certainly thinks highly of its mission, saying, ?robotics is set to become the driving technology underpinning a whole new generation of autonomous devices and cognitive artifacts that, through their learning capabilities, interact seamlessly with the world around them, and hence, provide the missing link between the digital and physical world.? It?ll certainly be interesting and exciting to watch it all unfold. Let the games begin.