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.
Director, Contextual Robotics Institute
at UC San Diego
BY IOANA PATRINGENARU
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
Robots are positioned to change our lives—but should they?