Robotics And Pittsburgh, What Other Regions Can Learn
I’ll start this article by admitting to a bias. When I think of software, especially artificial intelligence (AI), I tend to think of Silicon Valley and then, if I must, of Boston. I know that it exists elsewhere, but it rarely comes to mind. There’s a great school for computing (and I’m sure other things) I know of, but I rarely consider where it is. The school is Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and the city is Pittsburgh. One critical focus of CMU’s research is robotics. I’m not usually focused on theory, so let’s take a look at what’s happening in the Pittsburgh area in implementing robotic solutions in the real world, not only at CMU.
Let’s start with how CMU became such a center for robotics. While the concept of robots goes back thousands of years, the modern incarnation of manufacturing robots arrived in the 1950s. They were simple and repetitive, but researchers were always looking for more capabilities and, yes, intelligence. Universities began researching them and by the late 70s were getting serious. Carnegie Mellon created their Robotics Institute in 1979.
A quick tangent. For decades I’ve said that AI is whatever we still don’t know. As soon as an area of AI becomes well understood, it becomes its own area – and AI remains what’s left. Vision and conversational systems are two examples. Robotics, on the other hand, is a blend of mechanical engineering and AI. The first systems were mechanical and electrical. There was no intelligence. As stated above, very rapidly, the want for more intelligence for robotics blended the two arenas. It’s a very interdisciplinary arena. Now back to our regularly scheduled column.
As happens near most research universities, there was a clear migration from theory to practice. A long history of academics, their students, and even, in the case of computing, IT departments starting businesses. Today, Pittsburgh is home to at least one hundred companies working to create solutions around robotics and AI.
One thing the region has learned over the last decade. “Any city, county or region looking to expand and diversify its technology workforce,” began Joel Reed, Executive Director, Pittsburgh Robotics Network.
“Must look at its existing strengths and expand on them. The Pittsburgh region was able to grow robotics much faster, because of CMU, early companies, and a supportive ecosystem.” Another point he made was the need for strong communications between all three sectors, academic, business and government. If they’re not leveraging each other’s strengths, they will slow progress.
One key is the need to point out that it wasn’t only a pure “academia to business” flow that many like to imagine. Governments are needed to enhance the technology transfer and to create an environment that enhances the growth of new companies and business sectors. The Ben Franklin Technology Partners is an economic development program run in partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. Innovation Works is the partner program focused on southwestern Pennsylvania.
“The government can take some risks that private investors wouldn’t,” said Ven Raju, President & CEO, Innovation Works. “Analysis shows that every dollar invested in the network generates four dollars of taxable revenue.” The ability of public and private investors to work together is a critical component of robust industry development.
The pandemic has accelerated the awareness that high tech doesn’t have to live only in a few large cities. Personal mobility and improved communications means that companies can be headquartered in many places that have good infrastructure. What’s need to support that is that cities and regions must first identify their strengths. This may sound trite, but too many cities can be like too many investors, jumping at the latest “cool” thing and missing in the competitive struggle. Then they must focus on building a communications triangle combining academia, business and government.
The Pittsburgh story is a good case study. Robotics is strong there not because of magical thinking, but because of multiple pieces of the economy working in an integrated fashion to support the robotics sector.