The Way Forward of Robotics

The US leads the world in graduate engineering education. Many engineering undergraduate programs have adopted robotics as a teaching tool. And high school are using robotics as a lure to STEM education, with tens of thousands of high school students from all socio-economic levels taking part in the robotic competitions.

To accelerate the field, research is a number of key areas need to be undertaken. It ranges from fundamental long term research to practical ready to deploy developments, as enumerated in that order below:

• Visual object recognition: our robots today are not very aware of their surroundings, as we do not have general-purpose vision algorithms that can recognize particular objects never seen before as an instance of a known class.

• Manipulation: our robots today are not very dexterous as we have hardly had any multi fingered hand to work with. When mobile robot platforms started becoming available to researchers in the 80’s and 90’s the field of intelligent robot navigation exploded. We need to develop widely deployable robot hands so that hundreds of researchers can experiment with manipulation.

• Material Science: materials science is producing radically new materials with sometimes hard to believe properties. At the moment, robotics sits on the sidelines and uses these new materials as they might be applicable. A focused program on materials science and robotics would couple researchers in the two fields together to ensure that new materials that specifically benefit robotics are investigated and invented.

The Long Term Research of Robotics

The other fundamental long term research to practical ready to deploy developments, as enumerated in that order below:

• New Sensors: some sensors that robots need have made incredibly inexpensive by other market pulls, e.g. digital cameras continue to have their price driven down by the cell phone market. But dense touch sensor and exotic RF and capacitance sensors are still very hard to come by. Direct investment in new sensor modalities for robots will led to new algorithms that can exploit them and make robots more aware of their surroundings, and hence able to act more intelligently.

• Distributed and Network robots: technology allows us to decompose task in ways that humans are incapable. New architectures for robotic components that can self-assembly, whether physically or virtually, will enable new approaches to many application areas.
• Awareness of people: most future applications of robots will require that they working close proximity to humans. To so safely, we need both perceptual awareness of people, and actuators and robots that are intrinsically safe for humans to physical contact.

• Social interaction: if ordinary people are to work with robots they must be able to interact with them in cognitively easy ways. The robots can make this possible if they both pick up on social cues from humans and give social signals about their own intentions that a person can easily interpret.

In the 20th century the US led the world in four great waves of technological wave of the 21st century is shaping up the robotics. There are many competitors but with appropriate research investments the US is well placed to lead once again.
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