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The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm (short story): Why are the Biological Sciences Making Advanc

The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm portrays life in a struggling country under the ruler ship of the never seen Lord Grimm. The country is like a comic book version of the old Soviet Eastern Block where workers toil away on making giant mecha robots to defend against superheroes who periodically fly in from the West. The twist is that the country is more like the Island of Doctor Moreau, where many residents have been biologically modified. They would do better to focus on biological defenses or creating their own superheroes than on trying to manufacture clunky robots.

The story raises the question of: How come the biological sciences seem to be making advances faster than robotics?

Well, actually they ARE making advances faster than robotics.

One reason is that the materials for biological research are much cheaper and plentiful. Cells, proteins, nerves, muscles— these are everywhere and in diverse forms from sea slugs to primates. If you want to do basic research in genetics, you can grow some peas ($6.29 for a packet) or snag some house flies ($19.50 for a pack of larvae) and get to work. If you want to do basic work in robotics, you have to build or buy a robot ($10,000-$400,000), program it (hopefully it comes with a decent developer’s kit), and then get down to business.

A second reason is the amount of investment- there is not a lot of money being poured into robotics. As Kim Stanley Robinson noted in his Mars Trilogy, everyone wants to live longer, healthy lives and are willing to pay big bucks. The National Institutes of Health get about $39.2 billion each year from the government. The National Science Foundation gets about $8 billion each year for ALL science- not just engineering and computer science. Sure, DARPA funds some robotics and artificial intelligence work, but it has lately gone to the competition model where a few groups get funding while everyone else is expected to work for free with the payoff of winning a big award. Great for press coverage, not necessarily great for sustained innovation.

The National Robotics Initiative (NRI) was started in part to get at least a consistent, no matter how small, flow of money into robotics on the grounds that manufacturing robots would keep companies in the US who were leaving for countries with cheaper workers. Plus it would help generate robot companies. There is nothing like seeing ideas from US researchers get harvested and commercialized by companies from other countries. The NRI is basically all the other federal agencies join with the National Science Foundation to review and fund robotics research that is clearly related to application areas. For example, the Department of Energy is part of the NRI because they need robots for nuclear applications- we don’t want to be in the same situation as the Japanese were during the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. The Department of Agriculture would like more UAVs and smarter harvesters, and so on. The National Science Foundation sets up the reviews; the NSF is famous for its stringent peer review— a good idea may not make it through, but a bad idea definitely won’t. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Keep in mind it gets a whopping $35 million a year.

The comparison so far has been about basic research. Let’s talk capital investments. Health has considerable investment in Big Pharma and bio-med. Robotics has considerable investment in autonomous cars. Want to guess which is bigger: capital for Big Pharma or capital for autonomous cars? Just think of the money that was thrown at Therantos…

$35 million and autonomous cars companies versus $39 billion and Big Pharma and bio-med. It should be no surprise that the biological sciences are producing amazing results every day while robotics still seems the stuff of science fiction.

Read The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm in the We, Robots anthology edited by Allan Kaster and ask yourself if you see your life, or your children’s lives, heading towards a downward spiral of decreasing innovation.

- Robin

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