Business Forum: Steel, health care and future wealth of our robotic region

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A city that doesn't make things can never be a real city.

The Steel City got its name and built its international reputation by making the best metal products in the world. For Hollywood, wealth and fame came from making the greatest motion pictures the world has ever seen. Silicon Valley earned its place in history by giving us the personal computer, the cell phone and just about every other indispensable high-tech gadget you can think of.

In the aftermath of the dismantling of the steel industry, Pittsburgh was especially fortunate to have a world-class health care and university system. These gems allowed us to sidestep the ruinous fate that has befallen other Rust Belt cities such as Detroit and Gary, Indiana.

However, in the long run those regional assets will not be enough to elevate this metropolitan statistical area and its wealth back to the level it enjoyed during the middle of the last century.

Ultimately, hospitals and universities do very little in terms of keeping capital in a city. Patients are healed and happily go home. Students receive their degrees and tend to move away to the city with the best job offer.

A city that doesn't make things can never be a real city, and fortunately for the Pittsburgh region we are in an excellent position to continue our industrial dominance, only instead of the end product being I-beams for skyscrapers and bridges, the superior product of our highly skilled manufacturing base will be artificially intelligent robots for public and commercial use.

It was also in 1979 that the computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University demonstrated their incredible foresight and established the Robotics Institute. The institute was the first university department in the country of its kind and the first in the world to offer a Ph.D. in the field.

Pittsburgh is gaining national recognition for its expertise in the field of robotics. Two years ago, President Barack Obama made a special trip to the National Robotics Engineering Center in Lawrenceville to visit the facility and learn more about this vital industry of the future.

Successfully commercializing robots has proven to be difficult, and overcoming this challenge should be the goal of the city in general and the focus of the Peduto administration in particular.

Pittsburgh is excelling at developing robotics for public uses such as space exploration, but until a local company creates a commercially popular and highly profitable electro-mechanical machine, the full wealth-building potential of robotics will remain untapped.

In 2007, a story titled "Boy-Mayor defeats Peduto-bot forces" appeared as part of The Pitt News April Fools' edition.

In it, the writer described how then mayoral hopeful Bill Peduto "unleashed several hundred robot-soldiers from his secret lair high atop Observatory Hill in the city's North Side" to attack Mayor Ravenstahl. Let us hope and plan that someday this humorous, fictional tale becomes a peaceful, profitable reality for the region.

Josh Clark is the assistant general manager of Consad Research Corp., an independent think-tank in the East End specializing in public policy, business, and economic issues. He can be reached at jclark@consad.com


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