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The big American robot push

Data: Robotics Industry Association; Chart: Harry Stevens/Axios

In a challenge to the narrative of a declining American advantage in the global tech race, U.S. factories are installing record numbers of robots — and elite universities, endowed with huge new contributions, are adding vast centers to study artificial intelligence.

Why it matters: As we have reported previously, China has a massive global lead in the absolute number of new factory robots, and is pouring large sums into developing AI. But the twin U.S. trendlines — a surge in university research spending and the spike in robots — suggest a still-robust competition to dominate technologies of the future.

Robot-makers shipped 35,880 robots to U.S. factories last year, 7% more than in 2017, according to a new report from the Robotics Industry Association. And the balance shifted from a heavy dominance of auto-making robots to many more bots in the food, semiconductor and plastics industries.

  • For a couple of years, U.S. executives have said a widely forecast wave of AI and new robotization has been slow to arrive. But Alexander Shikany, who leads market research for the RIA, said the trend in robot deployment suggests an inflection point.
  • "Robots are getting better, cheaper and more versatile, and therefore can be used more effectively in more industries," says Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

Add to that Big Education: In a ceremony today, MIT celebrated the creation of a $1 billion College of Computing, anchored with a single, $350 million contribution from Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of Blackstone, the private equity firm. The college was announced in October.

  • In an interview with Axios, Schwarzman said his aim was in part to keep the U.S. competitive with countries like China.
  • But he also said he is worried that, "if AI is allowed to develop in an unchecked way, it could end up creating significant dislocations in society."
  • Schwarzman said one mission for the new college is "to make sure everyone understands the power of the technology and when it should be applied."

Researchers must keep a clear eye on "keeping technology under control," he said, and not surging headlong into advances and deployments without contemplating the consequences. "Just because it's cool isn't necessarily good enough," Schwarzman said.

But, but, but: Even as U.S. industry and top universities invest in future technologies, China is vastly outpacing the West in national planning and investments in AI and robotics, experts say.

  • "The position in this country has been to let the market dictate what happens with tech and science, and I think that's going to prove to be a catastrophic mistake," says Amy Webb, a professor at NYU and author of a "The Big Nine," a forthcoming book on the future of AI.
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