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Science Robotics: Helping build better robots for a better future

Science Robotics
27 Jul 2022
Vol 7, Issue 68
Bradley J. Nelson
Robotics asks the deep questions. We want to build machines that achieve a given task in an uncertain world. Our first question is how our machines represent this world. How complicated must this representation be? Is it mathematical, numerical, or semantic? Do we need to represent it using “simple” linear algebra, nonlinear systems theory, or semantics, or do we admit that our algorithms and math are not working and try deep learning? The next question we ask concerns perception. How do we determine the parameters of these models and the sensors we need to provide this information, and how should the structure of these representations change as our machines perceive their changing environments? The biggest question we ask, though, is what makes our robots intelligent? How do we connect our sensors with our representations and with the actions our machines must take to achieve their goals? No other field in science or engineering asks questions like these all at once. These are hard questions without clear solutions and often without clear paths toward solutions.
A single roboticist does not deal with all of this on their own, but all of us, from many areas of science and engineering, are building the knowledge and the technology that allows us to take a leap forward every now and then. Our foundation consists of mechanical systems, electronic systems, and computers, but we are increasingly adding new materials with interesting properties, approaches inspired by biological organisms that evolved solutions to many of these problems over eons, and new forays into the physics of collective behaviors.
As robots become more capable, the questions become deeper. What are the socioeconomic implications? What about the ethical questions that have not been considered? How will we interact with our world differently as daily interactions with robots become common? But the most fundamental question we will inevitably face in the distant future is, what does it mean to be human?
These are the kinds of questions Science Robotics attempts to answer. In my new role as Chief Scientific Advisor, I am confident that the journal can continue to be a forum for tackling the deepest, most important questions in robotics, and I am excited to help guide the journal into the next phase of its journey.
Given the early success of Science Robotics since its inception 5 years ago, the journal is poised to build on its well-deserved reputation to expand its mission. Articles and interviews of popular interest can be readily incorporated into the periodical. The history of robotics is longer than many working in the field are aware of, and decades-long perspectives from robotics leaders will help illuminate the field’s roots. Deeply philosophical perspectives can be included, and futuristic visions have a place in the journal.
We cannot forget that the primary mission of Science Robotics is to provide the best avenue for roboticists to present their work to their peers and to the general public. In doing this, we must maintain a reputation for high standards and fairness. We must also take the opportunity to, on occasion, place new developments in perspective and propose roadmaps to help guide the field. We must also help guide public policy in our domain while maintaining the trust and respect of the public.
Another key mission of Science Robotics is to help educate the next generation. Our field is an educational gold mine, and we must not shy away from using it to encourage younger generations to consider focusing their education on STEM. We should highlight the efforts going on around the world that use robotics to teach young students about science, technology, engineering, and math. We should not limit ourselves to the most advanced efforts, but just as importantly, we should make the field aware of many robotics projects in the Global South, where institutes focused on science and engineering are enthusiastically emerging.

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Published In

Science Robotics
Volume 7 | Issue 68
July 2022

Submission history

Received: 1 July 2022
Accepted: 1 July 2022


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Brad Nelson is the Chief Scientific Advisor of Science Robotics and the Professor of Robotics and Intelligent Systems at ETH Zürich, Zurich, Switzerland. Email: [email protected].
Roles: Conceptualization, Funding acquisition, Project administration, Supervision, and Writing - original draft.

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