New York Times Echoes UC San Diego View of What's Needed for Leadership in Robotics

San Diego, January 28, 2017 — A top technology columnist for the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo, this week published a manifesto about America's declining position as a world leader in robotics. In doing so, he turned to a computer scientist and robotics expert at the University of California San Diego to make the case for why the U.S. needs to invest into robotics innovation.

CSE Prof. Henrik Christensen, director of the Contextual Robotics Institute, is based in the Qualcomm Institute's Atkinson Hall.

Noting that the U.S. makes 85 percent more manufactured goods that it did 30 years ago, Manjoo stated in his State of the Art column published on January 25 that those goods were made with only two-thirds the number of workers in U.S. factories in 1987. By extension, the writer warned, "Mr. Trump can browbeat manufacturers into staying in America, [but] he can't force them to hire many people. Instead, companies will most likely invest in lots and lots of robots" if they can't manufacture in countries with cheap  labor.

To make matters (ironically) more dire, Manjoo predicted that "the robots won't be made in America. They might be made in China."  This, despite the fact that industrial robots were invented in the United States.

To explain how the U.S. is losing its leadership position in robotics to China, Manjoo turned to UC San Diego computer science professor Henrik Christensen, who directs the university's new Contextual Robotics Institute. "If you look at the comparisons in investment between China and the U.S., we're going to lose," argued Christensen, who joined UC San Diego in 2016 from Georgia Tech. "The investments in China are billions and billions. I'm not seeing that investment in the U.S. And without that investment, we are going to lose. No doubt."

Christensen and the New York Times columnist agree that in recent years the Chinese government has spent heavily to turn China into what Manjoo calls "the world's robotic wonderland." It became the largest market of industrial robots in 2013, and now Beijing aims to overtake Japan, Germany and the U.S. in the next decade as the largest producer of robots for factories and specialized industry uses.

Christensen and other robotics experts argue that unless the U.S. stops losing its edge in robotics, any increase in buying American-made goods will simply mean that instead of buying products "made in China", Americans will be buying "stuff made in America -- by Chinese robots." 

As outlined in the Times article, Christensen and others worry that unless we see investments in robotics for fear that it will appear to be going against a promise to create new jobs. But the robotics expert says it would be a mistake to forget that even the most automated factories still employ people. "To the extent that an investment in robotics might make it easier for companies to build their factories in the United States rather than in China, it might well create new jobs in the United States," concludes the article..

"All of this robotics technology was invented in the U.S., but we basically let other companies take it from us and make it cheaper, and now we're buying it from them," Christensen was quoted as saying. "In some sense, we're not being very good at making sure we remain competitive in areas that we're leading." He and other robotics experts believe significant investments can help the U.S. take advantage of key areas where it still holds an edge, e.g., such as surgical robots and "collaborative robotics" (where robots are optimized to work together with humans).  Furthermore, many of the top roboticists work at U.S. universities, and it's easier for a robotics startups to succeed in the U.S. than in China. 

For all of those benefits, however, both Christensen and Manjoo appear to favor taking a page from Japan's track record in robotics and other industries. They are pushing for the U.S. to invest and nurture the robotics industry in order to "turn some of the most far-out ideas in robotics into a structural advantage for the American economy."


Related Links

Contextual Robotics Institute
New York Times article

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