Obama Commanding Robot Revolution, Announces Major Robotics Initiative

The U.S. president is launching a National Robotics Initiative to accelerate the development of robots that can help create new businesses and jobs

6 min read

Erico Guizzo is IEEE Spectrum's Digital Innovation Director.

Obama Commanding Robot Revolution, Announces Major Robotics Initiative

barack obama national robotics initiative robots carnegie mellon

POTUS kept an eye on nearby robots, just to make sure they were all friendlies. Photo: White House

President Barack Obama loves robots. He’s invited bots to the White House and has even befriended a Japanese android. But now Obama has gone one step further: He’s decided to lead what may be a profound robotics revolution.

In a visit today to Carnegie Mellon University's National Robotics Engineering Center, Obama launched the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, a $500 million program to bring together industry, universities, and government to invest in emerging technologies that can improve manufacturing and create new businesses and jobs.

Robots are a big part of this effort. The administration's new National Robotics Initiative seeks to advance "next generation robotics." The focus is on robots that can work closely with humans—helping factory workers, healthcare providers, soldiers, surgeons, and astronauts to carry out tasks.

"You might not know this, but one of my responsibilities as commander-in-chief is to keep an eye on robots," Obama quipped at the beginning of his speech. "And I'm pleased to report that the robots you manufacture here seem peaceful. At least for now."

The National Robotics Initiative involves the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, NASA, and the Department of Agriculture, which combined will make available up to $70 million per year to fund new robotics projects.

President Obama tours the Natl Robotics Engineering Center

Obama tours the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon. Photo: White House

Obama said he visited a local company, RedZone Robotics, which makes a robot that explores water and sewer pipes [photo, below]. "It is fascinating stuff," he said. "It can go through any sewer system. It’s operated remotely by the municipal worker. It’s got a camera attached so it can film everything that it’s seeing." Obama said the robot could potentially save cities millions in infrastructure costs and create jobs for workers to operate the robots and pore through the data collected.

I asked Dr. Henrik Christensen, a robotics professor at Georgia Tech who helped to establish the new initiative, what technical challenges they plan to attack. He explains that traditional robots are good at tasks that require precision and repetition, but to work alongside human workers the robots need to be smarter and safer.

"If we want to build a robot coworker, we need to have safer systems, new materials, better sensors and actuators," he says.

One example is a robot that can observe a human worker performing a task—say, assembling parts of a car—and replicate that task, with the human supervising and assisting the robot if necessary. Another example is a robot that can help workers pack goods in a pallet or truck in an optimal way, to improve logistics.

The NSF, recently criticized for funding robotics projects some deemed wasteful, and the other agencies explain that a broad range of research will be funded, but with an emphasis on robotic systems as people's "co-workers, co-inhabitants, co-explorers and co-defenders." From the program solicitation:

This theme recognizes the emerging mechanical, electrical and software technologies that will make the next generation of robotic systems able to safely co-exist in close proximity to humans in the pursuit of mundane, dangerous, precise or expensive tasks. Co-robots will need to establish a symbiotic relationship with their human partners, each leveraging their relative strengths in the planning and performance of a task. This means, among other things, that for broad diffusion, access, and use (and hence, to achieve societal impacts), co-robots must be relatively cheap, easy to use, and available anywhere. As the US population ages and becomes more culturally and linguistically diverse, these co-robots may serve to increase the efficiency, productivity and safety of individuals in all activities and phases of life, and their ubiquitous deployment has the potential to measurably improve the state of national health, education and learning, personal and public safety, security, the character and composition of a heterogeneous workforce, and the economy, more generally.

"Our understanding of the applications of robotics technology has expanded," says Dr. Matt Mason, director of Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute. "Robots are not just for dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs. Their greatest value is working with people." He says that in addition to reinventing manufacturing, robots will play ever more important roles in agriculture, medicine, rehabilitation, and elder care.

barack obama visit redzone robotics carnegie mellon speech on national robotics initiative

Obama with a robot built by RedZone Robotics for inspecting water and sewer pipelines. Ron Wolf and Sub Vallapuzha of RedZone show the President how the robot can be remotely controlled.
Photo: Tim Kaulen/Carnegie Mellon University

And why start a new initiative when agencies are already funding cutting-edge robotics projects? Dr. Christensen of Georgia Tech says robotics research has been too fragmented; what is needed now is coordination.

"The most important thing is that we keep track of the results and make sure that innovations get transitioned to companies."

He says that claims that robots take jobs away from people don't take into account the fact that robots—and other technologies, for that matter—not only help keep companies competitive but also allow them to grow and hire more people. 

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which was involved in spearheading the new initiative, listed several reasons to make robotics a priority:

  • Robotics can address a broad range of national needs such as advanced manufacturing, logistics, services, transportation,  homeland security, defense, medicine, healthcare, space exploration, environmental monitoring, and agriculture;

  • Robotics technology is reaching a “tipping point” and is poised for explosive growth because of improvements in core technologies such as microprocessors, sensors, and algorithms;

  • Robotics can play an important role in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education because it encourages hands-on learning and the integration of science, engineering, and creative thinking; and

  • Members of the research community such as the Computing Community Consortium and program managers in key sciences have developed a shared vision and an ambitious technical agenda for developing next-generation robotic systems that can safely work with humans and augment human capabilities.

But of course, the real reason behind the initiative: Obama loves robots.

cmu sensabot signed by barack obama national robotics initiative speech

Obama left his signature on the Sensabot, a robotic vehicle designed to monitor dangerous environments. Photo: Byron Spice/Carnegie Mellon University

Here are more reactions issued by leading roboticists:

“Investing in robotics is more than just money for research and development, it is a vehicle to transform American lives and revitalize the American economy. Indeed, we are at a critical juncture where we are seeing robotics transition from the laboratory to generate new businesses, create jobs and confront the important challenges facing our nation. The nation’s robotics community is collectively poised to advance the technology and at the same time accelerate the transition of these technologies from the lab into the market.”
— Helen Greiner, president and CEO, CyPhy Works; president, Robotics Technology Consortium; co-founder, iRobot

“A well coordinated National Robotics Initiative will provide the leadership and investment necessary to accelerate the advancement of next generation robotics technologies and knock down the regulatory and technological barriers necessary to lead to wide spread adoption and repatriation of US manufacturing jobs.”
John Dulchinos, president and CEO, Adept Technology

“If we want to end the talk of a 'jobless recovery,' we should increase our national investments in robotics and create millions of high-paying jobs in the process. How? By developing improved robotics technology that can be applied to reviving our manufacturing industries, protecting the environment, reducing our dependence on foreign oil and helping provide quality care for our growing elderly population.”
— Jeff Burnstein, president, Robotics Industry Association

"The United States has pioneered research in Robotics and Automation; we are now poised to develop the next wave of robots that will dramatically enhance the abilities of human workers in factories, labs, hospitals, and homes."
Ken Goldberg, professor of engineering and information, U.C. Berkeley

"Robotics is a game-changer! President Obama's National Robotics Initiative will lead to new innovative technologies that will invigorate America's manufacturing economy by creating new opportunities and new jobs, improve our quality of life by revolutionizing health care and medicine, and make our nation safer with the development of robots for defense, security and emergency response."
Vijay Kumar, professor, University of Pennsylvania

"The use of robotics in medicine and health care has seen substantial growth in the last decade. Telerobotic systems are routinely used to perform surgery, resulting in shorter recovery times and more reliable outcomes for patients. Robotic rehabilitation systems are delivering physical and occupational therapy, enabling treatment that is continuously adaptable to a patient's needs. In the United States, robots are stimulating the development of new treatments for a wide variety of diseases and disorders, which will improve both the standard and accessibility of care."
Allison Okamura, professor of mechanical engineering, Stanford University; Maja Mataric, professor of computer science, neuroscience, and pediatrics, University of Southern California

"RE2 Inc. is representative of small robotics engineering businesses across the United States that are contributing to the economic growth of their regions.  These small businesses form the backbone of the new economy  by leveraging federal and private investments to create new high-tech jobs and ensure that the United States remains a leader of global innovation."
Jorgen Pedersen, president and CEO, RE2

Last updated 6/26 10:05 p.m.

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