Can an English Major become one of the most respected people in Robotics in the World?

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March 7, 2024

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Anastassia Lauterbach

Jeff Burnstein President at Association for Advancing Automation (A3) and Recipient of the 2023 Engelberger Robotics Award for Leadership.

Anastassia sat down with Jeff Burnstein, President at Association for Advancing Automation (A3) and Recipient of the 2023 Engelberger Robotics Award for Leadership.

Jeff is one of the world’s most influential people in robotics and heads the largest association of robotic companies. His path into technology was unusual – he studied English instead of Java and C++! Robotics and AI can give homes to people from many different backgrounds. Jeff is an unbelievable communicator, and this skill has enabled many beautiful stories in the technology industry.

Lauterbach: Could you briefly discuss how you started working in the robotics industry?

Burnstein: After graduating as an English major from the University of Michigan, I wanted to work in public relations and started at the Central Business District Association of Detroit in 1979. The city was going through a challenging period, trying to make a comeback. I really loved my first job, especially having the chance to meet business owners, public officials, and key members of the news media. It was a very exciting, but low-paid experience!

I made a poor decision to leave for more money and go to an advertising agency. I hated it and didn’t stay for long. I joined the Society of Manufacturing Engineers without knowing anything about manufacturing or engineering. Quite soon, I realized there was a thing called Robotics that many experts believed would launch the next industrial revolution. Not having a technical background happened to be a wonderful gift. My job was communicating to the public, media, and policymakers how Robotics impacted businesses and the social environment.

In 1982, the Group dealing with Robotics spun out from the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, and I joined what was then known as the Robot Institute of America in 1983. People believed the AI and Robotic revolution was upon all of us. And then, by the mid-80s, the industry collapsed. Automotive companies started cancelling orders. Many robotic companies exited the industry. The media talked about a failing sector. The future was uncertain. But I decided to stay as I wanted to help turn the situation around. I was convinced the future was about automation. My instinct proved correct. This year the Association for Advancing Automation (A3) celebrates its fiftieth anniversary. The group that started out as just a robotics association has become a fusion of Robotics, AI, Machine Vision, and Motion Control Associations and is now home to over 1280 global companies from very different fields of knowledge. A3 is now the world’s largest robotics & automation trade group.

Lauterbach: Andrew Ng believes we are in a perpetual AI spring when it comes to AI . Investments won’t dry up as there is a need for Machine Learning and Robotics applications in every business and industry. I assume you support this vision?

Burnstein: I know Andrew; he is really a great guy. I think he means our industry is still in the early days. He is correct. The first robot was installed in 1961. Sixty-three years have passed, but I still think we’re in the beginning. Of course, the automotive and electronic industries are leaders in adopting robots and AI. But what about all the small and medium-sized companies around the world? And what about a continent like Africa that hasn’t adopted automation at scale yet? And what about industries like agriculture and construction that are getting involved only now? Every industry is looking at automation for various reasons. There are so many opportunities that haven’t been explored yet, which is why the future outlook is so bright.

Lauterbach: Several European countries like Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Austria will age into mass retirement already in the first half of the 2020s. Demographics alone ensure that these countries as we know them will collapse as they are running out of adults to keep their GDP at the level their constituencies enjoyed in the past 20 years. Should Europeans wake up and immediately invest in automation, it will require time for transition. What do you think about Robotics and AI in the context of the demographical decline?

Burnstein: Labor shortages are indeed driving the need for automation worldwide. As a result of government policies limiting the number of children families were allowed, China is now facing problems related to an ageing and shrinking population. Thoughtful industrial policies are a must in every country. China’s Made in China 2025 program prioritized technologies like Robotics. China has emerged from a very low level of robot adoption to become the world’s leader. They are also trying to become the world’s leading supplier of robots, as they believe there is a competitive advantage to follow this path. The UK is number 24 in the world in terms of robot density, so they now are looking at policies to improve their standing. There is one huge problem, though impacting Western countries – including the US, Canada and Mexico – a shortage of skilled workers capable of developing and implementing robotic solutions. Creating apprenticeships and other educational programs to produce the technology-savvy workers needed to fill all of the currently available jobs will take years. That’s why even as the US reshores more manufacturing jobs, and Mexico benefits from nearshoring, there may be a limit to how much manufacturing can be brought back from Asia at the moment.

Lauterbach: Did COVID change cultural understanding of robotics and AI?

Burnstein: Before COVID, when I went into government offices to meet congressmen, senators and their staffs. I was telling them that automation and robotics could lead to better, safer, and higher-paying jobs. The policymakers responded that they were normally used to the doom and gloom talk of robots taking jobs.

COVID has dramatically changed the discourse. It became obvious that no one really wanted to do dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs – whether in large industrial companies, or in consumer-facing businesses. Restaurants struggled to stay open every night during the week as they couldn’t find people. Retail stores, hotels, and many factories faced the same challenges. The increase in automation is now being driven largely by worker shortages, which is changing attitudes about robotics.

We must address cultural understanding before we can solve policy issues in the US Robots and AI are designed primarily to augment people’s skills, not replace them. I feel that the policy situation in Europe can be even more challenging, where strict regulations may stop innovation because policymakers too often focus on their fears, not the opportunities that may lie ahead in an increasingly automated world.

Lauterbach: So what is the most important thing to shift the needle with regulators?

Burnstein: Technologies like robotics and AI should not be feared. If bad things are done, this is because people make choices to use these technologies for harm. I see signs of change in perception with governments and media. There is no longer a one-sided picture painted that robots put everybody out of work. Stories are now told about how robots and AI enable better, safer and higher paying jobs. We must train people to use technologies so they won’t fear them. The world has so many problems to solve. Curing rare diseases, providing more abundant and safer food to eliminate hunger, creating affordable housing to help eliminate homelessness, keeping the elderly in their homes longer, climate issues to make our planet more sustainable, robots and AI can assist with all of these major challenges.

Lauterbach: We face a vast industrial and societal transition from a world dominated by human labor to the age when humans and machines collaborate. What is needed for such a large-scale transformation to succeed?

Burnstein: Human-centricity is a precondition for a successful technology transformation. The robotic industry must listen and understand the needs in a particular niche. We also must invest in Human–Machine Collaboration. Many companies today have integrated robots that aren’t really a collaboration but involve robots working side-by-side with people. Today, collaborative robots are the fastest-growing robotics’ segment globally, even if we start from small numbers. The growth in robotics depends on several innovation areas. For example, robotic navigation plays a vital role in the logistics industry. It requires mapping processes between vehicles, robots, and human supervisors. Mapping isn’t possible without sophisticated data collection and processing capabilities. How can we make a machine smarter? How can we scale and make robots affordable across companies of all sizes? Myriads of possibilities open up, enabling a whole new service industry. If you can’t afford an upfront investment in robotic capabilities, there might be robots-as-a-service models. Robotic maintenance will be huge. The future is wide open for people understanding how to apply robotics from one industry to another and how to scale and fund robotic adoption. And, always, safety has to be the top priority, since nobody wants robots hurting people. Our association developed the first American National Robot Safety Standard in 1986, it later became the basis of the ISR Robot Safety Standard, and we continue to focus on safety in industrial, collaborative, and mobile robots.

Lauterbach: What is the future of social robots?

Burnstein: In 1984, we held an international Personal Robots Congress, with Nolan Bushnell as our keynote speaker. He established Atari and was later inducted into the Video Game Hall of Fame.

Joe Engelberger – the father of the robotic industry – developed the first industrial robot in 1961. He believed that the market for service robots would eventually dwarf the industrial segment. He expected multipurpose robots in households to arrive during his lifetime. He died in 2015, and today in our homes we only have robotic vacuum cleaners and toys, for the most part.

Putting a robot in a factory is one thing, as it’s a controlled environment. In a home, there are children, barking dogs, staircases, and things that are difficult to predict from an engineering point of view. Safety must be guaranteed. AI and robot hardware isn’t ready yet for widespread adoption of home robots in applications such as elder care. There is a long way to build reliable social robots.

Lauterbach: How does innovation in companies like Boston Dynamics influence the industry?

Burnstein: These companies innovate around form factor and integrating of Machine Learning with robotics. The level of R&D skills in these businesses is mind-blowing. Many established companies are funding the development of humanoid robots, e.g., Tesla. I am excited about what such companies as Apptronik, Agility Robotics, Neura and Figure are doing. Still, I’m not sure about the use cases for mass adoption. There have previously been interesting experiments with different form factors. Paro, the robotic seal, was used in Denmark in nursing homes for dementia patients. Government funded the purchasing of Paros and therewith enabled some adoption. There are other products such as robotic cats and dogs that have also emerged, again with relatively limited adoption. We might see more interesting solutions in education. During the last CES, Moxie AI from Embodied received an Innovation Award. This robot companion for children can be a friend and tutor.

Lauterbach: How do you think about cultural differences around the globe in adopting robots in daily life?

Burnstein: In the US, the Hollywood representation of a walking robot means it might be a threat as in popular movies like “The Terminator” and “I, Robot.” In Japan, kids grow up with books and characters of friendly machines. This is why there is more understanding and willingness to adopt robots in social settings. We are writing the cultural history today, which will dictate how humanity will think about robots in the decades. Technology education and literacy are a must.

Lauterbach: What are the recurring themes you hear within the robotic industry across the countries?

Burstein: Robots in the military and defence are a vast topic. There is a fear of “killer robots” that I share. I believe we should not outsource life and death decisions to a machine. The robotic industry’s overall goal should be how to augment and support people, not harm them. In the military robots can find unexploded IEDs so that soldiers don’t get killed, resupply troops, carry heavy packs, assist wounded soldiers, all of which are useful support services. However, the use of deadly robotic drones in the Ukraine and elsewhere potentially changes the face of modern warfare, and not for the better. Turning wars over to machines to fight is a very bad idea in my opinion.

Lauterbach: Does the industry still talk about Asimov’s three laws of robotics?

Burnstein: Joe Engelberger was a big Asimov fan and helped the Three Laws become popular in our industry. The industry might not talk about Asimov’s laws as much as they did decades ago, but we still stay true to their principles. Robots should not harm people and humans should remain in charge of robots, not the other way around.

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