Mark Tilden on “What funding scheme is the most conducive to creating a robotics industry?”

31 January 2013

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Funding schemes aren’t viable until we can make more innovative roboticists, and over the years I’ve tried several methods of engendering the Divine Frankenstein Complex in others. Teaching at a university had some merit but little flexibility. Starting international robot competitions brings in exposure but promotes more involvement than innovation. Scientific publications vanish into the ether (though books fare better). Movies, TV shows, and toys are never treated seriously though they spread memes universally. Even being a government research program manager (dispensing millions of $) is a slow bath in futility against IP lawyers and rigid corporate policy.

The most successful (and enjoyable) funding scheme I ever took part in was through a science outreach organization that distributed ‘Angel Cards’. We would actively seek out people who were frustrated but brilliant and give them a $10,000 US a month Visa card to spend on their research “hobby”. No other paperwork. At the end of 6 months we’d assess what they’d done and up their card to $20,000/month if good, or we’d just cancel the card, thank them, and walk away.

26% turned out something amazing, and not always in robotics, but that was fine. It was an excellent integrity test proctoring scientific conviction, but it’s exhausting for the managers, which is why we had to recruit successful candidates to take our place when we moved on. Regrettably the program stopped a decade ago, but for a while there it was like Santa Claus for innovation – an option to explore exotic, tangental paths without consequence, and I’m glad to see many of our docents have diversified profitably.

Money well spent. Always hoped someone else would take it up, and it seems a form of it has with the net-wide Kickstarter trend now raging. Rather than indenture a researcher to servitude under a venture-capital scheme or the bureaucracy of government funding, pre-customers can buy into a future product on promises and universal visibility. The personal investment is small, the risk distributed, and some of the products look promising.

Though crowd sourcing lacks the ‘blue-sky’ appeal of pure research outreach, I feel the best robotic funding scheme at present is to invest in cool and visible crowd-sourced ventures.

Or you could fund my ass. A cool hundred mil otta do it. :)

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Mark Tilden is a panel member for Robohub's Robotics by Invitation series.

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