Willow Garage shows how open source is supposed to work

What Willow Garage represents is hope. It's at the bottom of any cycle where America really shines. Open source rose to prominence from the dot-bomb.

At the center of the open source ideal is the concept that we can get more done if we work together than if we work separately.

You can go to the Moon on that attitude, but unlike government open source is not coercive. It is a voluntary association, a co-op built for big jobs.

The ideals are in evidence at Willow Garage, which held a press "graduation" for its robots yesterday. (The picture is from CNET's James Martin has a great photo gallery on the event.)

Asimov-style personal robots are expensive, but in hope Moore's Law can bring down those costs, if the right applications are developed. founder Scott Hassan sent 11 of his PR2 robots out on two year open source contracts, mainly to research universities like Cal Berkeley, Stanford and MIT.

It's a $4.4 million investment, plus service and support. How in the world will they get that back?

They get it back because the robots are platforms, not products. It may not be necessary to create an entire PR2 to replicate a successful application. Just make the pieces you need from the kit.

Those who reject the open source ideal will find plenty of competition to support. From Microsoft with its Robotics DeveloperStudio. From Evolution Robotics and its ESRP. Japanese companies have been working to commercialize robots for years.

But these illustrate the problem. Evolution has had to go into robotic floor cleaners to make money -- becoming the Pepsi to the Roomba's Coca-Cola. Microsoft, though it has plenty of cash, is still showing the 2008 version of its software on the robotic site's home page. Japanese robots usually show up on when we play OddBall.

So Willow Garage is not the only open source robotics effort. Gostai in France offers Urbi, an AGPL system that can be used to build small robots. USC has The Player Project, used mainly for education.

What all this really represents is hope. It's at the bottom of any cycle where America really shines. Apollo began at a time when the Soviet Union seemed to have beaten us to space with Sputnik. Open source rose to prominence from the dot-bomb.

Hope, in other words, springs eternal. Or in this case it springs a robot. Paging Dr. Calvin.

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