In a tale of three cities, a new robot alliance will compare notes to find the best balance of research, startup incentives, and industrial use of robotics and AI.
BOSTON — The second annual HUBweek event here last week was a chance for Boston to demonstrate its leadership and alliances in technology, the arts, and commerce. Visitors could see demos and attend workshops by wandering through geodesic domes and metal shipping containers in City Hall Plaza. At one session, representatives from three cities outlined an ambitious robot alliance.
During the “Lunch With Robots: Building a Mega-Cluster for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics,” Justin Kang, vice president of economic growth for the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, explained how Boston, Pittsburgh, and Montreal could learn from one another.
Pittsburgh leads by example
“Pittsburgh’s transformation from a steel town to high tech has been an example,” Kang said. “Like the other cities, it has strong academics and workforce. We recently took 30 people to Pittsburgh with MassRobotics.”
Tom Ryden, executive director of MassRobotics, led the discussion. MassRobotics is a nonprofit dedicated to helping the robotics community in Massachusetts and worldwide. “Why is Pittsburgh important for robotics?” he asked the panel.
Three highlights of the Pittsburgh visit included the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), a robot-assisted surgical demonstration at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and the Girls of Steel robotics team, recalled Kang, whose organization has 1,300 businesses as members.
Ryan Gent, director of membership at the Pittsburgh Technology Council, noted that the pool of CMU graduates as prospective employees has encouraged companies such as Google and Uber to set up shop in Pittsburgh. The council has 1,100 member companies.
Pittsburgh is also home to the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Institute, a nationwide public-private initiative to promote advanced automation and retraining in industry.
Canada offers incentives
Pittsburgh isn’t the only city pursuing leadership in automation as a path to success.
“Montreal is the university capital of Canada, with 200,000 students,” said Patricia Gruver-Barr, research, innovation, and trade attache for the government of Quebec.
She noted that about 9,000 of those people are studying AI and big data, and 75,000 are employed by tech companies such as Microsoft and Facebook.
Gruver-Barr said that various government agencies have provided $5 million to create the first “observatory” on ethics around AI and that the Canadian federal and provincial governments are investing tens of millions of dollars in AI leadership. Toronto is also positioning itself as an AI leader.
Boston brings robot alliance together
Ryden noted that not only are there more than 150 robotics companies in Massachusetts, but the city of Boston also allows for testing of self-driving vehicles in the Seaport District. The regulatory environment is different than in other cities and more supportive of innovators, he said.
However, there are challenges with taking autonomous cars across state lines, said Ryden, who also spoke at RoboBusiness 2018 last month (see below).
Gent said that a robot alliance offers the ability to do benchmarking of how well regulations, tax credits, and other policies are working to stimulate local economies.
“Nothing is formalized yet,” said Kang, who spearheaded the robot alliance. He described four areas of potential collaboration:
- Academia — There are 50 colleges and universities around Boston. The challenge will be finding ways for various institutions to work together, Kang said.
- Working with governments — Municipal and state/provincial governments should be aware of automation’s disruptive effects and consider proposals such as universal basic income.
- Startup creation — One idea is sending a delegation of venture capitalists from Boston to Pittsburgh, where there are fewer investors.
- Workforce training — Citing the Girls of Steel program, Kang said that not only are engineers and data scientists needed, but employees in all industries also need to be aware of opportunities even as robotics and AI change the nature of work.
A robot alliance can also offer collective branding of Boston’s development expertise, Pittsburgh’s postindustrial transformation, and Montreal’s research incentives, Kang observed.
“There’s proximity to skilled workers and markets for investors versus Silicon Valley,” he said.
Smaller is beautiful for robot alliance
“What about regional sizing?” asked Ryden.
“All three cities are relatively small, and all have a similar climate,” acknowledged Gruver-Barr. “Quebec and Vermont are forming an electric vehicle corridor, which would make sense to extend to Massachusetts.”
“Pittsburgh is smaller than Boston or Montreal, but it also has a low cost of living,” Gent said. “We have complementary companies to self-driving technologies, but we need talent and funding.”
Each city in the robot alliance does have widely differing levels of state/provincial and federal support, said Ryden.
“We have lots of tax incentives compared with the U.S., which we can discuss on a case-by-case basis,” said Gruver-Barr. Out of the $100 million that Quebec is investing in science, 26% is dedicated to fellowships and scholarships, she added.
Where will the jobs go?
Ryden mentioned the recent World Economic Forum “Future of Jobs” report, which predicted that more than 50 million jobs would be created by robotics and AI, even as some roles are replaced.
In addition to the ARM Institute, Gent said that local coding “boot camps” can help people retrain in 14 to 20 weeks. Kang agreed on the value of such programs, especially for under-represented communities.
“There’s an MIT grid of predictions, but we need to be proactive,” Kang said. “More jobs are now unfilled in Massachusetts than there are unemployed.”
“When we look back at the original Industrial Revolution, there were implications for labor and pollution,” said Gruver-Barr. “There will be more jobs for ethicists. For example, we’ve learned that some of the coding for machine learning includes bias in the algorithms.”
“While we don’t know what the jobs of the future will look like, we need to improve access and diversity,” Gent said.
An audience member asked why there aren’t yet more robots to assist the aging.
“Japan has focused mainly on social robots,” replied Ryden. “In the U.S., we’re looking or robots for hard physcial tasks.”
Another audience member asked about how the robot alliance members will share confidential data.
“We’ve first identified the partners, and we’ll get different input as we bring in more stakeholders,” Kang said. “It’s early in the collaboration process.”