Bill Gates stumps for robotic future

Summary:Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates lays out the robotic future in the cover story of January's Scientific American magazine, which has a C-3PO type robot on the cover. In the story, Gates argues that the robot industry is akin to the PC industry 30 years ago.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates lays out the robotic future in the cover story of January's Scientific American magazine, which has a C-3PO type robot on the cover.

In the story, Gates argues that the robot industry is akin to the

PC industry 30 years ago. Robots lack standards and don't have a common OS, processor or code base. And guess who wants to be that standard OS? Microsoft.

To be sure, it's no coincidence that Gates writes the cover of Scientific American in the same month it rolls out its operating system for robots.

Among Gates' key points:

Point 1: Someone needs to standardize robots.

The challenges facing the robotics industry are similar to those we tackled in computing three decades ago. Robotics companies have no standard operating software that could allow popular application programs to run in a variety of devices. The standardization of robotic processors and other hardware is limited, and very little of the programming code used in one machine can be applied to another. Whenever somebody wants to build a new robot, they usually have to start from square one.

Despite these difficulties, when I talk to people involved in robotics--from university researchers to entrepreneurs, hobbyists and high school students--the level of excitement and expectation reminds me so much of that time when Paul Allen

and I looked at the convergence of new technologies and dreamed of the day when a computer would be on every desk and in every home. And as I look at the trends that are now starting to converge, I can envision a future in which robotic devices will become a nearly ubiquitous part of our day-to-day lives. I believe that technologies such as distributed computing, voice and visual recognition, and wireless broadband connectivity will open the door to a new generation of autonomous devices that enable computers to perform tasks in the physical world on our behalf. We may be on the verge of a new era, when the PC will get up off the desktop and allow us to see, hear, touch and manipulate objects in places where we are not physically present.

My take: Gates could be on target with this one. If so, Microsoft could dominate the robotics industry since there aren't a lot of software players. Perhaps instead of pondering Zune sales, bloggers should spend more time watching Microsoft's robotic moves.

Point 2: Hardware costs are falling for robots.

Another barrier to the development of robots has been the high cost of hardware, such as sensors that enable a robot to determine the distance to an object as well as motors and servos that allow the robot to manipulate an object with both strength and delicacy. But prices are dropping fast. Laser range finders that are used in robotics to measure distance with precision cost about $10,000 a few years ago; today they can be purchased for about $2,000. And new, more accurate sensors based on ultrawideband radar are available for even less.

My take: Hardware is falling, but needs to come down a lot more to have Roomba-like mass market appeal.

Point 3: Software applications need a conductor.

Concurrency is a challenge that extends beyond robotics. Today as more and more applications are written for distributed networks of computers, programmers have struggled to figure out how to efficiently orchestrate code running on many different servers at the same time. And as computers with a single processor are replaced by machines with multiple processors and "multicore" processors--integrated circuits with two or more processors joined together for enhanced performance--software designers will need a new way to program desktop applications and operating systems. To fully exploit the power of processors working in parallel, the new software must deal with the problem of concurrency.

My take: Sounds like a sales pitch to have Microsoft be the robot conductor. Random thought: I wonder how robots will react when hacked? Something about Patch Tuesday and robots scare me.

Topics: Innovation


Larry Dignan is Editor in Chief of ZDNet and SmartPlanet as well as Editorial Director of ZDNet's sister site TechRepublic. He was most recently Executive Editor of News and Blogs at ZDNet. Prior to that he was executive news editor at eWeek and news editor at Baseline. He also served as the East Coast news editor and finance editor at CN... Full Bio

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