There are a hundred proverbs that make the same point: without risk, there is no reward. But because robotics straddles so many disciplines and sectors of society, seeing into the future to weigh risk in this industry is no easy matter. Robotics may indeed be at a tipping point, but many questions remain?
Which of the promised game-changing technologies will succeed? Which will fail? How to best support these emerging, visionary initiatives? When is the best time to invest? And, perhaps most poignantly, can we afford to be left behind?
High-risk, high-reward robotics
In an effort to answer these questions, we recently asked leading robotics experts to share with us their experiences and points of view as part of Robohub?s focus series on high-risk / high-reward robotics; our goal was to look at the financial, legal, human, and business risks ? and potential rewards ? of some of the most innovative and visionary robotics initiatives currently in development.
We spoke with top business leaders, investors, researchers and academics, and one clear point emerged from all the discussion: robotics is an interdisciplinary field that crosses many sectors, and risk means different things to its various stakeholders.
Academic researchers working on high-impact projects often face massive technical and administrative uncertainties as they attempt to bridge knowledge from across many disciplines; the government agencies that support their research must balance the desire to foster and support innovation with the need for tax-payer accountability; young entrepreneurs must figure out whether and how the technologies they have developed can be commercialized and brought to market; university incubators must seek ways to support young researchers in the transition from academia to business if they are to maintain their relevancy and reputation as cutting-edge research institutions; investors must envision emerging markets, identify promising robotics technologies and choose the right people to back, all the while hoping that law and policy will be able to keep pace with the technology.
The vision of the future depends on who?s holding the crystal ball.
Meanwhile, in spite of the general public?s great interest in robotics, many of the field?s most promising and visionary developments are largely unknown or misunderstood outside the robotics community. One reason for this is that high-quality robotics information is largely missing from mainstream media. Another is that information on robotics is spread over a variety of different websites with varying quality.
This lack of quality information has important consequences. First and foremost it is a missed opportunity for science education in engineering, which deeply affects tomorrow?s scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs. Second, this lack of communication is a direct cause for the absence of public debate on important, timely policy issues including the ethical use of robots in scenarios like elderly care and warfare. Both of these consequences have a critical effect on the ability of the robotics community to take bold, visionary risks towards developing robotic solutions to society?s most pressing problems.
Researchers and entrepreneurs are used to weighing the potential risks and rewards of any project they are thinking of putting time and money into. Potential financial investors ? be they government policy advisors, members of grant committees, venture capitalists or angel investors ? are no different. But a public uneducated in robotics is likely to take a broad-stroke, reactionary stance on emerging policy issues that will inevitably drive the success or failure of many of our most promising robotics ventures.
Think of drones, for example. Concerns over ethics and privacy dominate mainstream media. Yet UAVs have huge potential outside policing and military applications, with surveyors, environmentalists, first responders and farmers being just a few of the groups that are anxious for the current FAA restrictions to be lifted.
Meanwhile, entrepreneurs have staked their bets on the hope that the FAA?s September 2015 deadline for integration will be met, and interest groups from both sides of the debate are busy lobbying politicians. With so many competing interests at play and so little information available about the drone?s many applications, it?s no wonder that most members of the public think of them mostly in terms of their killing or spying potential. Is all this debate causing the commercialization of UAVs to pass America by? How many other important emerging robotics technologies will face the same fate?
Education through communication
The good news is that today, more than ever, people are primed to learn about robotics. This high level of interest, both in robotic technology and in potential applications, presents a unique opportunity for public science communication: it allows robotics experts to directly address a younger generation that is increasingly difficult to reach through traditional media and public communication channels, but is highly active on new media.
It also enables the discussion of a large breadth of topics related to the field of robotics, including electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and computer science, as well as more general questions such as the ethical, legal, and moral aspects of robotic technology.
At Robohub, we have built up an international team of communicators with broad robotics expertise, including research, start-ups, business and education, all under one umbrella. As a non-profit, our primary goal is to demystify robotics for the general public by acting as a gateway for the latest robotics research, news and expert opinion (we also offer tutorials and lectures for the do-it-yourselfers). Our view is that communication is a two-way street, and that a public that is knowledgeable, active and engaged is better able to participate in productive discussion on the issues that matter to the robotics community.
If it?s the public that?s holding the crystal ball, it?s our job to make sure they know what they?re gazing at.