Why Robot?


Henrik Christensen is the director of the Contextual Robotics Institute at UC San Diego, a collaboration between the Jacobs School of Engineering and the Division of Social Sciences. He is also a professor of computer science and one of the most influential robotics researchers in the world. He has advised Congress about setting national policy on robotics, is a leading commentator for CNN and is often quoted in The New York Times. He envisions turning San Diego into “Robot Valley.” Here, he talks about robotics and the field’s future.

Why is robotics important? Why does it matter?

Think of it: We had the industrial revolution and then the IT revolution. But the information systems we’ve created have yet to really interact with the physical world. Robotics fills in this gap, tying in machinery with IT to change the physical world. This includes robots for manufacturing, robotic assistants and autonomous driving cars. To me, robotics is the next revolution after the IT revolution. Robotics is going to be an integral part of everybody’s life in five, 10, 15 years.

That prospect makes some people cautious.

Right now we have a very polarized discussion about how robotics is just going to kill jobs. In the short term, yes, it will take away a certain number of jobs, but those are mainly unhealthy, very repetitive jobs that people really shouldn’t be doing. Yet robotics will also create a new economy. Just like when the IT revolution happened, people were worried about being laid off. But it created more jobs. Our manufacturing economy turned into a service economy, and we always have to think about what’s next.

Do we really need robots, though? Why do we need these systems to interact with the real world?

Robots will be doing jobs that people should not be doing—everything from jobs that lead to repetitive stress injuries to handling nuclear waste. These are the jobs robots should do. Not to mention things humans can’t do—we can send robots to places where it’s difficult to send people, like Mars.

And robots can serve us in our daily lives, of course. For one, they can alleviate the coming eldercare crisis by helping a significantly aging population remain independent. A lot of people would prefer to stay home rather than move into an assisted living facility. They would prefer to be able to do things without having to rely on someone else. Robotics is about doing things people shouldn’t be doing, expanding our frontiers and giving people independence.

Let’s go deeper, sector-by-sector, like healthcare—how can robots help? 

Surgical robots are incredibly popular. They are being used for cardiac surgery, prostate operations and even certain kinds of brain surgery. Robots can minimize the amount of incisions necessary and the overall trauma involved, for a lower risk of complications, faster recovery times and, typically, much better outcomes.

Eldercare is the next frontier. We’re seeing significant aging, and people will typically have to leave their homes for facilities, either because they can’t manage their medical regimen or because they lack mobility. Robots can provide assistance so that people can get reminders to take their medications; help them get in and out of bed; do simple things like picking up the remote control or glasses when they fall on the floor. This will give people a higher degree of independence. They can live better lives for a longer time.

Let’s talk transportation and self-driving cars and trucks, which people might not think about as robotics.

This is going to be a big revolution.

There are five levels of autonomy for self-driving cars. Level one is very basic assistance to the driver. At level two and three, the car can park autonomously. Level four is what we’re starting to see with Tesla, with extended periods of time where the car is driving in traffic well. At level five, there is no steering wheel—like an Uber with no driver.

Most automotive companies forecast that by 2020, vehicles will be available with extended periods of time where you don’t have to be in charge. Imagine: during 80 percent of your commute, you don’t have to hold the steering wheel. You read your newspaper, or drink coffee, or start to work even before you get to the office.

The estimate is that in 10 years we will see level-five cars without steering wheels.

If we have autonomous driving cars, we could put at least twice as many cars on the road without making traffic worse. This would actually improve traffic, but without investments in infrastructure.

This will also have an impact beyond the automotive sector. I think we’re going to go from owning cars to cars becoming a service. I use my car two percent of its lifetime. The remaining 98 percent, it’s just sitting in a parking lot. What if I could use ride sharing, and the cost of my car goes down significantly?

So it’s going to give people autonomy, it can change our infrastructure, and it’s going to drive down costs.

What are the challenges for the field?

We need to make sure we can build robots that are as dexterous as humans. Robots are far from possessing that level of dexterity. We also need more flexible materials and fine-tuned sensors.

We’re also relatively far from having the kind of artificial intelligence that would allow robots to actually reason about the world around them and interact with people in a way that feels natural. We need interfaces that work for people who don’t have a degree in computer science or have never used a computer. We need to make sure we don’t build a digital divide between those who can use this technology and those who can’t.

Finally, the price of robotic systems has to come down so they are accessible to everyone. Robots have to be affordable both in the industrialized world and the developing world.

The most important thing we can say is to make sure you get a good education. Because no matter what, the world is changing rapidly, and education allows you to ride the wave rather than be left behind.