Brain Drain Is Threatening the Future of U.S. Robotics

A radio-controlled drone, dubbed "Navy STEM Drone," flies near audience members before the Oh! Zone show at the 12th annual Science Technology Education Partnership Conference in Riverside, Calif., Oct. 26, 2011.

Greg Vojtko/U.S. Navy

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A radio-controlled drone, dubbed "Navy STEM Drone," flies near audience members before the Oh! Zone show at the 12th annual Science Technology Education Partnership Conference in Riverside, Calif., Oct. 26, 2011.

Advances in robotics and automated warfare have outpaced U.S. regulatory mechanisms. But a much bigger problem threatens the future of robotics in America's defense: the brain drain to the private sector. By Megan Garber

ASPEN, Colo.—Should the U.S. establish a new federal agency to regulate robots

Here’s one potential problem with that proposal—one that has very little to do with the law, and very much to do with technology: “The government has virtually no experts on the inside that understand autonomous robotic systems.” 

That’s according to Missy Cummings, a professor of engineering at Duke, an expert on drones and other robots, and a former fighter pilot. Cummings came to that conclusion—one that means, she says, that “the United States government is in serious trouble”—while advising the government in, among other things, its development of a $100 million robotic helicopter program.

The one thing that I realized while I was on the inside,” she said during a talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival, put on by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, is essentially that “the defense industry really cannot get the people that it needs for the robotics programs it would like to have.” The U.S. not only doesn’t know about robotics … it doesn’t know, in the words of another former member of the military, what it doesn’t know. It doesn’t fully understand how to test robots, Cummings says. It doesn’t fully know how to regulate them. 

Take drones. There are currently six sites, scattered around the country, that the FAA has established as testing areas for unmanned autonomous vehicles. But the agency, Cummings argues, likely won’t be able to hire the people they’re going to need to run these programs. It’s a systemic problem, and one that begins with the education system. “Our country,” Cummings says, “simply is not putting out enough” people—engineers, roboticists, software engineers—who have expertise in robotics. The government, in the military and beyond, isn’t doing enough to incentivize or compensate technologists. “And the ones that we do train,” Cummings adds, “are going to private companies like Google or Apple.”

That means, among other things, a government that is ill-equipped when it comes to the work of regulation and oversight. Whether private industry’s current hegemony over robotics is a generally good or bad thing is debatable, Cummings allows, ”but I think it’s certainly a problem when our government cannot assess whether or not technology is decent—or even ready to be deployed.”

Which leads to another reason to think that “the United States government is in serious trouble.” While the U.S. is lagging in when it comes to robotics’ human resources, Cummings says, other countries are quickly catching up. They’re developing their own expertise with automated technologies—including, alarmingly, automated weaponry. Drones, for better or for worse, are “are a true democratization of technology,” Cummings says; they put significant amounts of power in the hands not just of states, but of individuals and other extra-state actors. And if the U.S. is ill-equipped, systemically, to deal with warfare that is newly democratized and newly weaponized … ”it’s my prediction,” Cummings says, “that we’re about to have our you-know-whats handed to us on a platter.” 

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