Pittsburghpedia: The making of “Robotics Row,” coined locally and known globally

Know your weird and wonky Pittsburgh terms? This post is part of our Pittsburghpedia series, a handy glossary of words and phrases unique to our city that’ll help you #talklikeyoulivehere. Let’s fill you in. Today’s entry … Robotics Row

WHAT IS IT? A reference to the concentration of technology companies in Pittsburgh, specifically those working on robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous manufacturing, self-driving cars, and more. 

WHERE IS IT? Along the Allegheny River in the Strip District and Lower Lawrenceville. 

Dozens of companies and organizations working on robotics and autonomous technologies call the three-mile stretch of Allegheny riverfront home, per TribLive. The area’s past as a shipping and warehousing hub means it offers plenty of large, industrial spaces suited for robotics research. Increasingly, it also offers the kinds of modern-day office spaces that tech companies require. 

ETYMOLOGY: The phrase “Robotics Row” can be traced back to one woman, who connects the rise of the term back to one local news organization.

That woman is Jackie Erickson, founder of Jackie Group, a Pittsburgh-based consultancy firm for tech companies, robotics companies, and start-ups.  

“I’m usually the kind of person that lets other people take credit, but I’ll take credit for this one,” Erickson, a former staffer for U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, said of the phrase. “It was a very good marketing effort that cost zero dollars.”

When attention started to focus on the tech companies being drawn to Pittsburgh in the first half of this decade, media coverage often employed terms like “Roboburgh” in distilling the phenomenon into a single, tidy, headline-ready buzzword. 

But some engineers from the west coast bristled at references to Pittsburgh’s “Silicon Strip,” Erickson said.

A native of Pittsburgh herself, Erickson quickly recognized the role robotics would play in Pittsburgh’s tech economy and wanted a succinct way to refer to the prevalence of robotics companies in the Strip District without offending west-coast transplants. 

“I was getting calls from journalists and I started saying just call this ‘Robotics Row,’” Erickson recalled in a recent phone interview with The Incline.

She credits local outlets like TribLive with adopting and helping to popularize the term.

“I think the trigger was the arrival of Uber and Bossa Nova, and I said to (TribLive reporter-turned-editor Aaron Aupperlee), now is the time to do the ‘Robotics Row’ story. And it was Aaron’s article that really kicked it off.”

Erickson said soon after that 2017 article, representatives of the South Korean electronics giant LG came to town. 

“And they said they wanted to go ‘Robotics Row,’ and I said, ‘You read the article, didn’t you?’ And that’s why I tell people to never underestimate the power of local reporting.” 

Politicians — some local and some not — started using the phrase. Ivanka Trump tweeted it out ahead of a 2018 visit to town. And the rest, as they say, is linguistic history. 

So what do you get for coining a phrase that reaches this level of ubiquity? 

“What I get out of this is a nice smile,” Erickson explained.  

ROBOTICS ROW(S)?  Of course, there have been other terms applied to Pittsburgh’s tech sector — Roboburgh, Robot Belt, Silicon Valley East — some dating back to the last millennium. It’s all part of what former Post-Gazette tech reporter Courtney Linder described as the official push to reclaim or replace the Rust Belt label and rebrand an industrial area like the Strip as a 21st century hub of innovation.

But the phrase “Robotics Row” has a staying power the others didn’t. It’s also become increasingly relevant as more tech companies — autonomous vehicle developers like Uber and Argo among them — set up shop in the area. 

Much of this convergence owes to the fact that Pittsburgh is home to Carnegie Mellon University, which claims the nation’s first undergrad program in AI and which has a pioneering computer science program and influential robotics institute

And while the tech presence has grown in neighborhoods like East Liberty, too, the Strip District remains the most closely associated with those companies and developers focused on robotics and artificial intelligence. This includes outfits like RE2 Robotics, Astrobotic, Voci Technologies, Argo AI, Simcoach Games, Bossa Nova Robotics, and Idelic, just to name a few.  

Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership is actively working to lure tech companies to neighboring Downtown. And depending on the success of that effort, the future could hold a much longer Robotics Row — or maybe Robotics Rows.