Group Discussion about the Future of Robotics

Ross Knepper, Cornell University & Dylan Shell, Texas A&M University


Robotics research is at a tipping point.  Until now, robotics has largely taken a frontier mentality, akin to American westward expansion in the nineteenth century.  Manifest Destiny was the belief that Americans were destined to conquer the continent from coast to coast.  Settlers packed up their belongings and moved westward to build a homestead and plant their own personal flag on 160 acres of land.  Similarly, flag-planting has long characterized much of robotics research, with many systems built to showcase firsts in the field (e.g. the first flatpack furniture assembly robot).  We arrived at a tipping point now because industry has decided to make major investments in robotics engineering.  The past flag-planting papers of academia serve the needs of industry poorly.

In this seminar, we hold a group discussion about the future of robotics research.  We will begin by discussing the following questions.

  1. Robotics research is traditionally splintered by the flag-planting mentality.  There is little incentive to replicate results, and there are many small research problems.  Does the end of the frontier necessitate that we work on fewer, bigger problems?  How can we all do a better job of making our results relevant and applicable to one another?
  2. Industry is better than academia at engineering.  Is a shift towards a more scientific approach to robotics research inevitable?  What are the consequences of a scientific outlook?
  3. How can the work we do in academia be made more relevant to the needs of industry while continuing to do what universities do best? Is this what is fertilizing the specialized robotics degree programs that are currently proliferating?
  4. Turner’s Frontier Thesis postulates that the fundamental American character is a consequence of the frontier movement.  Does the frontier movement in robotics portend a similarly distinct character for post-frontier robotics research?  If so, what are the specific consequences?