Please find below my statement in response to the Coburn Report on the NSF.
Public scrutiny of how taxpayer money is spent to support research is essential. However, criticism based on distorted and inaccurate information endangers the essential role university-based research plays in maintaining America's global competitiveness, the creation of jobs, the emergence of new industries and the development of products and processes that directly contribute to our health and well-being. No matter where you turn---your smart phone, your doctor's office, your workplace---you can find the results of federally funded discoveries.
In his recent report on the NSF Senator Coburn attempts to present the early results of my current research as frivolous. As one of the principal investigators on an NSF project on "Hierarchical Decision Making for Physical Agents" I have a responsibility to address and refute the report's claims and conclusions. In its initial coverage of one of our early discoveries, the popular press picked up on a YouTube video illustrating one small subset of our results, namely a robot with the ability to identify and neatly fold towels. Reading the Coburn report one might come to the conclusion that our team spent $1.5 million for a breakthrough that is far from earth-shaking. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The development of these robotic abilities came six months in to what is, in fact, a four year project that has important objectives that go far, far beyond the creation of over-priced domestic help.
We know that humans somehow manage to choose quite intelligently among the twenty trillion primitive motor commands that are at our disposal over the course of our lifetime. We have astronomically large number of options available to us depending on hundreds of voluntary muscles, each of which are capable of responding to multiple commands per second. Our NSF project is concerned with furthering our understanding of how we do this and then develop computer-based decision making tools that can deal with complex environments and situations.
We believe that society stands to greatly benefit if we can apply these understanding to the field of robotics. In order to expand the use of robots beyond manufacturing the machines must be far more sophisticated in terms of their ability to deal with complexity. That's what our work is all about. Towel folding is just a first, small step towards a new generation of robotic devices that could, for example, significantly increase the independence of elderly and sick people, protect our soldiers during combat, and a host of other applications that would revolutionize our day-to-day lives.
While most of our work involves abstract math and algorithms, in my experience it is vital for research productivty to connect our efforts to concrete, intermediate challenges which are beyond the reach of current technology. Robotic laundry is an example of such an intermediate goal because of the extent to which it exposes the obstacles we face the minute robots are removed from highly structured manufacturing environments where the machines are, for example, only required to pick up the same bolts from the same place and install them in the same way every single time. Laundry objects, on the other hand, are deformable; they come in different sizes and shapes and for that reason our early success with towels represents a very significant achievement. Put another way, prior to this breakthrough no one had ever successfully utilized a general-purpose robot for anything like this. That is the reason our publications about these initial results have been featured in a series of international conferences on robotics and automation. The people who have dedicated their lives to these subjects understand what the critics do not: we have taken a very significant step forward. This is why assessment of research, particularly that funded by the taxpayer, must consider the entire project and not just one small element that might have tickled the public's imagination. This is also the reason why any research proposal is first assessed by our scientific peers---qualified experts who have the knowledge and experience necessary to determine which projects hold out the most promise and deserve support.
Like all researchers, I am very conscious about how I spend federal funding and welcome public scrutiny. I also believe deeply in the NSF's mission to educate the next generation of scientists and engineers. This includes the sort of outreach efforts we are constantly engaged in. Hundreds of children and their parents have come to our lab to see the robot in question, and one need only look at their faces to know that there may be no better way to share the thrill of discovery with the next generation of scientists.