The World Is Embracing Robots But America Keeps Them at Arms Length

The World Is Embracing Robots But America Keeps Them at Arms Length
Image credit: R.xR. Anderson | Flickr

A robot teaching kindergarten? Caring for your aged parents? Entertaining you? These updated R2D2s exist in Korea, Japan and Europe. Personal or socially assistive robots are making tremendous inroads all over the world. The challenge is for the U.S. to catch up in terms of production and consumer acceptance.

In 2014 the European Commission launched the world’s largest research and innovation program in robotics. SPARC is expected to propel Europe to the top of the robotics class, out-spending global rivals South Korea, Japan and the U.S. The initiative is also expected to create over 240,000 jobs in Europe by 2020.

Japan, a world leader (just behind China) in developing personal robots, is stepping up production of “caring robots” for its growing population of the elderly and physically infirm. The “performing” robot, Kobian, is Japanese as well. Korea is developing robotic teaching assistants for 8,000 kindergartens.

Although President Obama enacted his 2011 robotics initiative, it funds mostly industrial robotics, which hasn’t helped our society embrace personal robot technology the way other nations have.

And our nation is uniquely poised to benefit from personal robotics as an industry -- before becoming irreversibly left behind. Here’s why.

Robots are an opportunity for America to regain manufacturing supremacy.

In the 2000s, America lost 5.7 million manufacturing jobs – our worst loss in history. The 33 percent decline as a share of total manufacturing jobs was even greater a loss than the rate of decline during the Great Depression. At the same time, in 2010 China displaced the US as the world's largest manufacturer. One way to mitigate this loss is through private sector manufacturing in growth industries, like robotics.

Our company, Five Elements Robotics, is the only US domestic manufacturer of personal service robots, but we are forced to rely on some foreign-made parts, because robot components and assembly still remain largely overseas. This is a missed opportunity for America. With the worldwide service robotics market expected to reach $19.4 billion by 2020, America should make domestic production of robot components and assembly a top priority.

Robots could help care for us as we age.

As the 2013 Robotics VO report puts it, “The United States is on the threshold of a 20-year trend that will see a near doubling of the number of retired workers as a percentage of the current workforce —from just over two retirees for every 10 workers today to just over four retirees for every 10 workers in 2030.”

We are also living longer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, life expectancy in the US rose in 2012 to 78.8 years, a record high. Who is going to care for us as we age? Japan and Korea already have programs in place to develop assistive robots for supporting the elderly and the disabled. This is a prime, forward-thinking growth market that America desperately needs to take advantage of.

Related: In Japan, a 'Strange Hotel' Will Be Staffed Almost Entirely By Robots

We have the technology but not the acceptance.

Other countries are ahead on the “robot-acceptance” curve. The country that gave the world Apple and Amazon is woefully out of step in acceptance of personal robots as a normal part of culture. We just aren’t “mentally ready” for in-home robots the way other countries are.

Case in point -- 80 percent of sales in my company are to foreign consumers. Japan’s government is heavily involved in promoting robotics, with the eventual goal of using robots in a caregiver role for the elderly and infirm. The South Korean government has said that it not only wants a robot in every household by 2020, but also that robots will routinely carry out surgery by 2015!

Americans are more skittish, which may owe to our long pop-culture association with AI that turns on us, or at the very least, takes our jobs. Our universities and research facilities have developed robot technology that rivals that of other countries, but it remains far from mainstream. As a society we need to overcome the cultural hurdles that prevent us from taking full advantage of the promises of robot technology.

Related: SXSW: The 'No-Robot' Protest Was Actually a Marketing Stunt

Domestic robotics offers tremendous investment opportunity.

As the technology becomes more practical, applicable and cost-effective, the in-home robot sector is poised to pique investment interest. Domestic production of personal service robots means intellectual capital retention, revenue retention, increased jobs and even a greener footprint.

The market is waking up to this. In 2013, NASDAQ welcomed the first-ever exchange-traded fund (ETF) index based on robotics-related stocks. Investment consultants such as the Motley Fool agree that “the consumer market will experience faster growth than the industrial market. Growth in the consumer market is projected to be especially strong. Once this nascent market reaches a tipping point, growth should kick into high gear.”

President Obama launched a national robotics initiative in 2011 in a bid to accelerate the development of this industry, presenting yet another call to the investment community to get “robot-ready.”

And Americans should get “robot-ready” as well. Personal robots are here to educate, assist and entertain at home. These domestic robots can perform daily chores, assist people with disabilities and serve as companions or pets for entertainment.

As personal service robots come down in price and improve in terms of services they can perform, we expect more and more Americans to embrace robot technology. What’s more, the “face” of robots continues to change. Robots are often perceived as machines without personality, but our studies show that a “winning” personal service robot is one imbued with human traits -- “cute” being chief amongst them. The more this warmer personality style develops, the more acceptance should increase.

Our company is out to change the human mindset and bring robots not just closer to home but to the home. At Five Elements, we see attractive, non-threatening robots that interface with you, who are cute and friendly, useful and cost-effective. Most importantly, what was once a crazy dream for the uber-rich is now ready for the mass market. What was once a $100,000 robot, is now a practical $1,400.

I believe that someday personal service robots will be as prevalent in American homes as laptops and flat screen TVs. But most importantly, I envision robots becoming an invaluable part of the American family. I see us developing relationships with our robots and relying on them to perform the important functions in our everyday life.

America has long been the forerunner of so many other “revolutions” – industrial, technological, digital, it is time for America to wake up and take the reins in the Robotic Revolution.

Related: Why You Should Revolt Against the 'Robot Uprising'