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Long view required to keep economic policy in step with developments in robotics

Policy is really about long-term thinking — a process we should do but don’t do for various reasons. Though China is a notable exception, very few governments make long-term planning a priority.

Corporations are more disciplined and less prevailed upon by conflicting interests than governments; hence long-term planning is a regular part of their management practice. But corporations have neither ethics nor loyalties, and often do marginally (if not outright) immoral things to preserve the profitability of the company over the welfare of the community and workforce.

Entrepreneurial solutions from business start-ups are a whole different category. They don’t necessarily solve anything that needs long-term solving, and they don’t really have a long-term business plan. They address a current whim, need or solution that the inventors feel strongly about. And they make it or fail based on their energy and ability to sell their new product. Only after they are established does long-term thinking kick in, so that the new company can develop new products and services.

Let’s look at how policy is supposed to work in the US, why it might be failing us, and how taking the long view can help.

Thus, if we are going to answer a question about policy, it’s really governments that we should be looking at. So let’s look at how policy is supposed to work in the US, why it might be failing us, and how taking the long view can help.

How the policy process is supposed to work in the US
The Executive Branch of the Whitehouse is supposed to analyze the future and past with an eye toward meeting and setting strategic goals including those defined in the US charter (its Constitution). They bring in the best minds to discuss problems and their solutions — sometimes behind closed doors and other times publicly. They also study trends and change to see what the future has in store for us. This is where the process of strategic planning — a process whereby goals and objectives are balanced against resources and alternative possibilities for the use of those resources — is supposed to take place.

In compliance with the intent of the Constitution, which provides the moral and ethical parameters to guide the process, the three most prominent objectives of this strategic planning are to provide continued infrastructure, healthcare and security. This planning often gets very specific, as can be seen in many of the DARPA projects: ARPANET, which turned into the Internet; Transit, which became our current GPS system; handheld language translation devices presently used in Iraq and Afghanistan; Stealth planes; Semiconductor gallium arsenide; Robot cars via Grand Challenge competitions; Bionic limbs; and the list goes on and on. DARPA is just one agency that solicits scientific solutions for various aims: NSF, NASA, NIH, USDA are four other prominent translators of Presidential goals into reality.

Sometimes strategic planning is more generalized, as was the recent recognition that the process of offshoring manufacturing to lower-cost-labor countries had serious unintended consequences to America, and that the process should be stopped or seriously changed — this realization prompted the Advanced Manufacturing Initiative, which included a section for robotics development. As the Manufacturing Initiatives were being discussed, there was a timely submission of the presentation to Congress of the US Roadmap for Robotics (which was partially funded by government grants).

Most often, strategic planning is reactive rather than long-term. Consequently, as resources are allocated to these reactive issues, long-term planning suffers and serious issues get put off.

As the Robotics Initiative was incorporated into the Manufacturing Initiative, additional unintended consequences could be seen: the need for more technically skilled labor and the reduction of the lower-skilled workforce. Most often, strategic planning is reactive rather than long-term. Consequently, as resources are allocated to these reactive issues, long-term planning suffers and serious issues get put off.

Annually the President presents the results of those analyses and makes a case for the goals he chooses in a state-of-the-union and budget presentation to the Congress and the public. Congress then figures out how or whether the goals and services that the President outlined represent the will of the people, and whether the budget he proposed meets the needs of the existent government plus the new goals/services. They break down the President’s proposals into small tasks and send them to committees that specialize in those tasks. These committees have staff that are schooled in the subjects of the tasks, and these staff members often supplement their own analyses by consulting with outside organizations that represent the various interests and stakeholders involved.

The committees discuss, negotiate, and evaluate the merit of the goals the President has proposed. Then, when they agree to agree, they write laws and regulations that define those goals and present these to the whole of Congress, along with summaries, so that Congress members can evaluate and then pass those new laws and regulations task by task.

Finally, the Judicial System is there to adjudicate how people and companies interpret and comply with those laws.

Thus there are at least three levels where knowledgeable people influence the outcome of the strategic planning and legislative process: at the Presidential fact-finding level; within congressional committees and in the Congress and Senate itself; and at the judicial level.

Infiltrating technology whiz-kids into these positions isn’t enough of a solution; there’s more to the debate than just knowledge of the technology.

Infiltrating technology whiz-kids into these positions isn’t enough of a solution; there’s more to the debate than just knowledge of the technology. There are also the ethical considerations, possible long-term consequences and alternative solutions to consider. Hence the need for wise leaders to pick balanced teams of advisors who can collectively cover all aspects of the strategic issues.

Those people who are appointed to presidential advisory, or “thought” positions need to be the nation’s brightest, and most knowledgeable and altruistic — for example, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology headed by Dr. John Holder and the other staff members of the Whitehouse Office of Science and Technology Policy, all of whom are competent selections. Congressional committee selections need to combine the most knowledgeable (and not just the most senior or junior) of the membership; Congress itself needs to have a balance of technology executives amongst its membership (fewer lawyers); and committees’ permanent staff needs to be selected for their technological prowess (not on seniority), and should be regularly vetted for any improprieties between them and lobbyists and special interest groups.

Assuming that most policy-makers start their policy-making careers with the intention of representing the best interests of their respective constituencies (and the country as a whole) by finding the least costly solutions to our problems, how come they don’t do just that?

Why the policy process might be failing us
The short answer is constant scrutiny, instant pressure from media and others, divided loyalties, and inadequate (and sometimes compromised) staff, all of which lead to selfish and protective thinking. The long answer is more thought-provoking.

Ian Goldin, Director of the Oxford Martin School offers some interesting solutions and solution methods. Goldin, a former VP of the World Bank, addresses the why, the how and the what-to-do about it in his new book: Divided Nations: Why global governance is failing, and what we can do about it. He writes:

Globalization increasingly presents a paradox: it has been the most progressive force in history, but the most severe crises of the 21st century will arise due to the very success of globalization. Unless we are able to manage these threats, there is a real danger that globalization will have given birth to its own downfall.

In the two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, fundamental political, economic, and technological changes have led to a step-change in global connectivity. Interdependence and innovation have brought unprecedented benefits, and led to the most rapid global rise in incomes and health in history. However, the same processes of integration and innovation have also greatly increased the potential for systemic risk and global crises. Globalization is leaping ahead of the lethargic institutions of global governance.

The number of countries involved in negotiations (close to 200 now) and the complexity of the issues and their interconnectedness have grown rapidly, as has the effect of instant media and other pressures on politicians. These and other factors have paralyzed progress, so the prospect of resolving critical global challenges appears ever more distant.

Goldin believes that the UN would have to gain power over its member nations, with nation states relinquishing much of their current powers to the UN. He further says that without at least a global calamity, this isn’t likely to happen. He thinks that humanity is in denial of the fact that only one solution can prevail: some form of binding global governance… but only for those problems needing collective international action. Alternatively, Goldin points out that much could be tackled by a smaller group of nations: “a coalition of the willing.” He writes:

“What is needed is for NGOs, corporations, professionals, legislators and their staffs, and the public, to face up to the fact that today’s problems cannot be solved by their current approaches, nor by nations acting alone, nor by keeping our heads in the sand. Like it or not, some form of binding global governance must occur.”

Taking the long view

China’s communist government has a long-term point of view and the discipline to make their strategic goals happen; few other countries have that power.

Policy-makers need to be focused on solving long-term strategic issues for their countries and constituencies. But it’s an iffy situation. During President Bush’s term, friends were placed in key advisory roles, often with no background knowledge of the subjects upon which they were to advise. Things are better in the Obama administration. Nevertheless, it’s a lot like the dialogue we’ve had before about which comes first: the technology or the solution.

But the answer is Neither.

What comes first is the problem that needs to be solved, and the commitment to finding a solution. That’s where and when positive things happen. If there’s no advice, long-term problems go unaddressed. China’s communist government has a long-term point of view and the discipline to make their strategic goals happen; few other countries have that power.

It’s not enough to place technology-friendly people in key advisory rolls. Nor is it enough to invest in science. Or efficiently lobby all the key players. Strategic goals need to be defined, talked about and agreed upon. Then the mechanisms of science, law, politics, business, the public, and funding can all focus on the solution.

This essay is an expansion of Frank Tobe’s response to Robotics by Invitation question “What do policy-makers need to do to keep pace with economic development in robotics?”

Read more answers →

Frank Tobe is the owner and publisher of The Robot Report, and is also a panel member for Robohub's Robotics by Invitation series... read more


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