Robots and other intelligent, man-made machines such as drones or driverless cars have moved beyond the factory floor and are finding use in healthcare and other service industries and even in the home.

Excerpted from The Future Postponed, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2015

Emilio Frazzoli: Director of the Transportation@MIT Initiative, Director Aerospace Robotics and Embedded Systems (ARES) group, and Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics

The idea of man-made machines that can perform burdensome tasks that would otherwise be carried out by humans is a powerful one. From the first practical robots developed in the U.S. in the 1950’s, these useful devices have acquired an increasingly funda- mental role in manufacturing, especially in the automotive industry: advanced factories such as Tesla’s are able to produce cars with great precisions and efficiency. Use of robots is also growing rapidly in electronics, food/beverage, pharmaceuticals, and medical devices. Even small and medium sized business are putting robots to work.

While robots undeniably sometimes replace low-skill workers in the U.S., they also are allowing the U.S. and other developed coun- tries to “reshore” a significant part of their economies, creating numerous opportunities for domestic employment and economic growth. And of course, robots require advanced technology skills for their design, deployment, operation, and maintenance, increasing the advantages of locating production facilities where highly skilled engineers and technicians are more readily available. Moreover, there is a new generation of robots coming that are smaller, more flexible, voice-controlled and safe enough to collaborate with human workers— as teammates rather than as replacements. These robots are likely to increase human pro- ductivity and thus save jobs.

Increasingly, robots are no longer confined to factory floors but finding use in homes (to clean floors), in healthcare and other service sectors (to deliver files or materials within a facility), and in transportation and logistics (think of Amazon’s robot-powered distribution warehouses). Google has recently acquired several robotics companies and has made headlines with its efforts to develop robotic, driverless cars. This evolution may help provide solutions for labor- scarce jobs, as well as lowering consumer costs. For example, driverless cars could not only help avoid accidents but could also make car sharing an attractive alternative to car ownership, pro- viding personal mobility with the convenience of private transportation and the sustainability of public transportation (Uber without drivers). The size of such a shared fleet would vastly outnumber the number of available taxi drivers in most cities in the U.S. (ever tried to find a taxi in the late evening of a rainy day?), and would generate a variety of new jobs, ranging from servicing and maintenance to the development of the back-end operations structure.

No U.S. company is a market leader in designing and manufacturing industrial robots. And current U.S. investment in robotics research is dwarfed by new initiatives in other countries.

The research opportunities include putting still more flexibility, sensing capabilities, and intel- ligence into robotic devices, to make them still more capable of helping people and organiza- tions accomplish routine daily tasks or function at times and under conditions that people don’t want to work.

Unfortunately, while the U.S. is a leading country in the use of industrial robots, no U.S. company is a market leader in designing and manufacturing them. Most come from Japanese or European companies, with South Korea and especially China quickly on the rise. The U.S. is at present more competitive in research-oriented domains (domestic robots, driverless cars, drones, etc.), but that may not last in the current global landscape. The U.S. National Robotics Initiative, launched in 2011, includes the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Health, NASA, and the Department of Agriculture; the Department of Defense is also supporting robotics research and DARPA is sponsoring a Robotics Challenge with a focus on humanoid robots. But the combined U.S. investment is dwarfed by similar new initiatives worldwide. The European Union’s new program, for example, commits about $3 billion in a combined public-private effort designed to ensure that the EU retains a 30-40% market share in the global robotics industry, estimated to reach $70 billion by 2020.

The U.S. is already relying on other countries to provide industrial robots. Staying competitive in rapidly growing and evolving new markets for robotics will require larger investments.