An open letter from the Program Chair of Robotics: Science and Systems 2022

We are well aware that RSS is the Robotics: Science and Systems Conference, but any observer of RSS over the last many years would be forgiven if he/she were to ask the question, “where are the systems?”

It is an open secret in the robotics community that it is hard to publish “systems papers” that demonstrate physical robots performing real-world, useful tasks. The sheer amount of work and grit that a team must pour into making a system function is undeniably a daunting barrier, not to mention the criticisms of reviewers who complain of “low novelty… isn’t this just engineering?” (As though engineering were a dirty word, only to be spoken of in hushed tones and in passing)

And yet, one could argue that this is the time where systems research is needed the most. If the robotics community were to have studied with greater zeal and academic rigor the problem of how to build effective robot systems quickly (and allocated funding priorities accordingly), then perhaps we could have had robots at the ready for combating the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps if the techniques adored by academia had been more adaptable to real world conditions, autonomous vehicles would have been closer to viability by now. Perhaps if we were better at building and sharing reusable software and hardware, promising startups would be on their way to deploying useful products rather than burning investor money reimplementing the wheel.

Although RSS is known as a strong conference, it has a reputation for being less amenable for systems engineering research compared to many other robotics conferences. It also has a reputation for valuing research that tends toward theoretical contributions that may be distant from the practical dimensions of robotics. RSS doesn’t have to be this way to stay strong — strong research can indeed be highly practical. I am in awe of the impact that my colleagues in computing systems research have on supercomputing and data centers, and the impact my colleagues in networking have on telecommunications and the backbone of the internet. Their research is in many ways “just engineering” but applied to prevailing trends with foresight, perspective, and creativity. More importantly, their research is accompanied by the rapt attention of industry and makes real-world impact measured in months or years, not decades!

For RSS 2022, I intend to steer the ship back toward a greater balance between theory and practice, to better reflect the breadth of research being done in robotics. We will implement two small but important changes. In the review process, the rubric will include a new item asking each reviewer assessing the impact that the paper is likely to have on current and future deployed robot systems. Then, Area Chairs will be asked to comment on the practical impact of papers and to weigh this impact in their acceptance recommendation. It is important to note that a strong systems contribution (or any systems contribution at all, for that matter) is not necessary for acceptance to RSS; on the other hand, having a complete system is not a guarantee of acceptance. Rather we want to provide a new dimension of assessment that will allow papers that fall outside of the typical “RSS style” to receive a fair review of their merits. I hope that these changes will encourage more researchers who work in systems to submit their work to RSS, and will raise the suggestion to reviewers that there is a world beyond clever methods tested in simulation — systems contributions indeed have significant value.

Aside: So you want to write a good systems paper? Some tips are:

  • accomplish a significant integration milestone
  • identify social/technological trends and forecast the likely impact of your approach
  • clarify the space of solved vs unsolved dimensions in a domain, or
  • provide a useful tool or component for others to build upon.

The cat is out of the bag: the world is watching robotics and expecting us to make an impact on society. The long term success of our research field rests on our ability to deliver this impact. We cannot accomplish this goal by navel-gazing at academic problems; instead we must tackle the hard questions that industry does not have the perspective, patience, or incentives to address. With our continued dedication to excellence in topical, relevant research, we can together ensure that the RSS conference remains a guiding light toward answering those hard questions.