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.

Human candidates are still less predictable than robots.

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.

The U.S. leads the world in military spending, as well as in automated ground vehicles, unmanned aerial vehicles, and development of autonomous undersea vehicles. Many of those technologies could have value to civilian purposes, as well as to national expertise.

Recurring tensions with Russia and other countries, fears of terrorism within the U.S., and an increasing reliance on all kinds of drones could loosen congressional purse strings for robotics, even as some ethicists warn that tools are only as good as the intent behind them and the security and accountability of control.

For instance, nobody has yet challenged the U.S.’s leadership in aerial drones, but that doesn’t mean that rivals and foes aren’t copying them.

Also, Russia’s autonomous tank, Israel’s automated ship, and China’s urban combat robots are just examples of how robotics is changing warfare.

Do we need a national chief robotics officer?

A cabinet-level position around robotics policy is unlikely, no matter who gets elected in November, but whoever wins will have to turn from campaign promises to the harsh realities of working with Congress and varied political and economic stakeholders.

A coherent vision and tone would help guide policy and public opinion away from the media-stoked panic about robotics.

Transhumanist Party candidate Zoltan Istvan

Zoltan Istvan is a self-professed “cyber-optimist.”

Whether it’s Bernie Sanders worrying about income distribution, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz heralding America’s return to greatness, or Hilary Clinton’s description of automation as a “tectonic force” squeezing the middle class, it would be nice to get more specific robotics policy proposals in the coming months.

Zoltan Istvan, the Transhumanist Party candidate for president, claims that AI governance could solve many of today’s problems, leading to a guaranteed minimum wage.

However, the self-described “techno-optimist” isn’t well-known by the American public.

What do you want in the next U.S. president? How much or how little should the government be involved in setting robotics and technology policy?