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Robotics Flagship: What the community thinks

In February we asked for input from the robotics community regarding a potential Robotics Flagship, a pan European interdisciplinary effort with 1B EUR in funding, if successful! The goal of the flagship is to drive the development of future robots and AIs that are ethically, socially, economically, energetically, and environmentally responsible and sustainable.

This is the first of many activities we will host to engage the community. You can read more about the Robotics Flagship in a nutshell here.

We received 125 replies (120 from Europe) from roboticists.

In what areas does robotics have the highest potential to benefit society?

Overall, replies show the potential of robotics in all sectors to benefit society, since they all received an average score above 3 out 5 (high potential). Sectors which received the highest average score were industry, logistics, agriculture, inspection of infrastructure, healthcare, exploration, and transport, in that order, all of with an average above 4. Other sectors highlighted by respondents included ecology and environmental protection, tourism, construction, and the use of robots for human understanding, or for scientific investigation of body and brain.

What are the main challenges to achieving this potential?

The main challenge to achieving this potential was seen as technological with an average score of 4.35 out of 5 (very challenging), then societal and regulatory (average scores of 3.69), and finally economic (average score of 3.52). Respondents also highlighted ethical, ideological and political challenges.

What are the key abilities that need to be developed for the robots of tomorrow?

Central to the flagship proposal is the need for new robot abilities that will make robots a reality in our everyday lives. All abilities shown below were seen as central to develop the robots of tomorrow with average scores above 2.9 out of 5 (very important). Abilities which received the highest average score were learning, advanced sensing, cognition, in that order, all with an average above 4. This clearly shows the need to develop robotics and AI hand in hand. Other abilities highlighted by respondents included, reliability, security and safety, reconfigurability, modularity and customisation, advanced actuation, and efficient energy usage.

What resources would you need to make your robots a reality?

Finally, we asked the community what resources they would need to make their robots a reality. Not surprisingly, funding came out on top with an average score of 4.7 out of 5 (very important), next came experimental sites (3.72), networking opportunities (3.75), fabrication facilities (3.58) and standards (3.31).

So what else did the community think would be helpful? Time, software and hardware aggregators, integrators, and maintainers, ethical and legal support, as well as a better understanding of user requirements and social attitudes.

What would you like to see in a robotics flagship?
Finally, we asked what the community would like to see in a robotics flagship. There were too many suggestions to post here, but a recurring theme was high risk projects and big ideas, the need for cross-disciplinary research, and the hope that robots will finally leave the lab to work alongside humans.

By Sabine Hauert

Sabine Hauert is Assistant Professor in Robotics at the University of Bristol in the UK. Her research focusses in designing swarms that work in large numbers (>1000), and at small scales (<1 cm). Profoundly cross-disciplinary, Sabine works between Engineering Mathematics, the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, and Life Sciences. Before joining the University of Bristol, Sabine engineered swarms of nanoparticles for cancer treatment at MIT, and deployed swarms of flying robots at EPFL.

Sabine is also President and Co-founder of Robohub.org, a non-profit dedicated to connecting the robotics community to the world.

As an expert in science communication with 10 years of experience, Sabine is often invited to discuss the future of robotics and AI, including in the journals Nature and Science, at the European Parliament, and at the Royal Society. Her work has been featured in mainstream media including BBC, CNN, The Guardian, The Economist, TEDx, WIRED, and New Scientist.