Robots and ‘the market’

I read in the Computing Research Policy Blog that U.S. lags globally in robotics development. Such statements often surprise lay people because everyone has seen famous videos of unmanned systems in war zones, etc. However, as noted by the National Robotics Technology Roadmap, that seems to be the only area where serious money has been invested in robotics within the US. Now, I have a slightly different take on some aspects of this – it depends on what you consider robotics (engineering of machines, autonomous agents, AI, etc.) and different countries focus on different aspects of these things. In fact, I don’t think any country does a totally balanced job of investing in all aspects of the broad area. But, coming back to the original statement, I think the deficit is to be expected because – by and large – US research money is allocated in a fairly capitalist way and we are not yet in a position to make a strong economic case for robotics in the same way as other areas.

Incidentally, on the same day as the above article, I received the following message in my email inbox. I am sure there is a strong connection between the two threads! Incidentally, I made an argument (admittedly a hand wavy one) in a recently submitted grant application that might mesh well with what the affordable robotics people want. I am sure I am not alone among roboticists in thinking about these things. However, the authors of the message below are quite correct to note that there is a significant difference in perspective between most robotics researchers and what they have in mind. Read on…

Dear Robotics Researchers and Developers, crises like the one that we are going through in these days have not only drawbacks. They also offer the opportunity to think the unthinkable and to adjust our horizons a little. For decades the robotics community has promised and announced that robots will pervade our daily lives and serve humans wherever dirty, dull and dangerous tasks need to be done. But how many robots providing a reasonable service at a reasonable price can you buy today in a warehouse? After fifty years of robotics research and development there is only a handful of such robots out there. Robotics today has the reputation of not only being high technology but also being highly expensive. However, if robots really shall serve humankind at large, then they must become *affordable*. What we badly need are the “tin lizzies” and the “beetles” of robotics. The current situation virtually screams for an adjustment of the horizon in robotics research and development. This message is an appeal to the robotics community to leave at least for a short moment the established paths of robotics research and development and to think the unthinkable. We would like to invite the entire robotics community – researchers as well as developers and engineers, juniors as well as seniors – to an *idea contest on affordable robots*. We cordially invite you to tell us, what you consider the most badly needed robot, the robot which you would buy immediately, if you only saw it in a warehouse and if it did not cost a fortune. What about * a robotic bookshelf de-duster for 299 EUR/USD, which removes the dust from your bookshelves, or * a last seen radar for 199 EUR/USD, which tracks the objects in your house and can tell you where you left your glasses or your keys, or * a robotic fly swatter for 49 EUR/USD, which spots the bugs hovering around your ears at nighttime and gets them before they bite you? Participants in this idea contest, should sketch their ideas on a three slide presentation with the following content and email it to *until June 15, 2009*. The first slide should be a title slide naming the idea, the inventors, and their affiliation. The second slide should contain a drawing of the robot and describe in form of a bulleted list the service and functions, which it is supposed to provide. The third slide should describe again with a few bullets how the idea could possibly be implemented, the technology required and how much the robot would eventually cost. The submissions should meet the following criteria: 1. They should describe an idea, which is original. 2. They should describe an economically meaningful service. 3. The proposed idea should have a realistic chance of being implemented. 4. A realistic price estimate of the final product should be in the order of 1000 EUR or less. All submissions, which meet the above criteria, will be published on The top 10 will be presented during a town hall meeting on “affordable robots” at ICAR 2009 ( in Munich. At the end of the meeting the participants will choose a winner, who will be awarded a prize of 1000 EUR. Think the unthinkable Erwin Prassler PS: Please, forward this message to your students!!!

— B-IT Bonn-Aachen International Center for Information Technology Applied Science Institute, Dept. Autonomous Systems Grantham-Allee 20 53757 Sankt Augustin Germany

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