Rich Mahoney on “What do policy-makers need to do to keep pace with economic development?”

15 July 2013

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I am not sure how to describe the specifics of what policy makers should do, but I think there are two gaps that policy makers should think about that are associated with the economic development impact of robotics:

  1. sufficient funding to support an emerging robotics marketplace, and
  2. detailed descriptions of the innovations needed to solve specific problems.

The recent US National Robotics Initiative did a good job of coordinating marketing of existing funding opportunities in robotics R&D across government agencies, but was directed only at R&D.  Governments can drive innovation in economic development as well by creating acquisition opportunities, or where the government does not purchase directly, by aligning policy with requirements in the market. This is a little-used scenario for robotics so far, outside perhaps acquisition by the military of IED-defeat robots. Other markets that could benefit include agriculture, environmental protection, and healthcare.

To my second point, in order to develop economic incentives through acquisition or policy change, government agencies need well-articulated target solutions that provide a desired impact, and some sense of how acquisition budgets or policy would be aligned with those solutions. DARPA is very good at driving innovation this way. It does not say, ‘please work on robots related to the following list of healthcare areas,’ but instead, its Program Managers provide a very specific description of the robot they would like to see demonstrated, with a corresponding need that will be filled when that demonstration is accomplished. DARPA’s mission is associated with national defense. So, from a policy perspective, it would be valuable for various other government agencies to describe the robots that solve specific problems in their sector.

There are many other issues that will need to be addressed as robots emerge in these different markets but, typically, specific markets are very good at adapting standards as technology evolves. UAV-based solutions for agriculture, for instance, are forcing policy-makers to address laws related to our airspace for these types of devices.  The emerging self-driving vehicle market is leading to changes in driving laws.  But the markets police themselves.  Although there is a lot of attention to new developments in robotics, the actual level of applied innovation is relatively modest, and is throttled at some level by the factors I have highlighted.

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Rich Mahoney is the director of the robotics program at SRI International.
Rich Mahoney is the director of the robotics program at SRI International.

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