Bill Gates stumps for robotic future

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.

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TOPICS: Emerging Tech
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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.

Topic: Emerging Tech

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  • Gates on Robotics

    Glad to see that Bill is involved in this area and taking the lead. I don't think I'll sell my Microsoft stock anytime soon . . .
    cwinsor
  • Seems very Matrix to me

    Everything in the robotics space is to enable higher productivity. This being the case we would need to identify which tasks we do take time, and of those which ones do we actually need to be present.

    Anything that involves inputs and outputs to and from a person mandates our presence. Sleeping or anything that affects our state mandates our presence, but other than that do we actually need to be present for say work? Nope. What about doing laundry? Nope. What about cooking? Nope.

    What about more personal stuff like intercourse? Well in some circles machines have already taken over :)

    Robots will begin to really emerge doing small things like automatically creating a hot cup of coffee in the morning or automatically turning the shower on or starting the car automatically and warming it up before you leave for work.

    These machines will do away with habits that don't require our presence and allow us to focus more on things that we have less time for like family, friends, focus.
    THEE WOLF
    • history shows otherwise

      "These machines will do away with habits that don't require our presence and allow us to focus more on things that we have less time for like family, friends, focus. "

      The technology did not improved the amount of personal time!
      Just check the number of hours/year people were working 30 years ago with what we work today.
      It shows that the opposite is true.
      Linux Geek
  • Hindsight is 20/20

    This line will be read in the future with the joking attitude of the "640 K ought to be enough for anybody" quote by Bill Gates in 1981:

    "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."
    timjfisher
  • Microsoft is not the best company for the job

    Yes Microsoft came up with an operating system for robotics. It used it's clout to get a lot of partners who are looking where most of Microsoft partners look, their pocketbooks.

    Point 1: Safety and reliability. What does a "blue screen of death" mean in the real world? Suppose your robot is near your CHILDREN when it occurs. Robots that can actually do useful things are DANGEROUS. Being struck by a industrial robot would just kill one dead. NOONE can admit that MS has a history of putting our software that is reliable and safe, not to the extent that is needed in robotics. No consumer software company does but there are companies in the industrial sector that do. Win XP does not run the Mars rovers... and if they did? Microsoft is not the best company for the job.

    Point 2: Security. What does happen when someone hacks your robot? Forget about pictures of you in the shower all over the internet. Real personal safety and security is at stake. Again, everyone knows that MS products have patches every week to fix security bugs. This is not just because hackers hate Microsoft but that the company is a big bloated bureaucracy and makes the same kind of software. Thus there are holes in the design allowing people who are angry (some for valid reasons) to take out their frustrations. Again, Microsoft is not the best company for the job.

    Point 3: Standardization. The remark "very little of the programming code used in one machine can be applied to another" is not true unless you are looking only at Microsoft as a robotic operating system. There are thousands of pieces of software written by hobbyists, students and universities to support image processing, mapping and path planning, Artificial Intelligence, and parallel processing. They run on variants of Unix (i.e. LINUX). I guess Bill didn't notice those? They do have the problem that they are not PRODUCTS and sold at your local robotics store because they are FREE. In this case FREE does mean that they are harder to use because they did not have an army of programmers to make the install disks. But they also did not have an army of programmers to bloat the software.

    But the main problem with standard is the HARDWARE. Do you know of a really functional robotic platform? One that can move in a house and know where it is, can lift a can of Mt Dew or open the refrigerator? No? Neither do I. Because there aren't any.

    However, the industry is moving toward making PCs into robots and that would at least make the "brains" standard but what about the peripherals? The PC does not really interface to motors and sensors and cameras very well or inexpensively. This is where the standard needs to be applied. Use Firewire or USB or some other bus to connect real world devices to a PC. Again this is not a good job for Microsoft or any other consumer company. This is a job for a standard organization like IEEE. Microsoft is not the best company for the job

    The hopeful side of me thinks that the attention that robotics is getting will give some small company the impetus to create the killer application for robotics: ?the Robotics Napster?.

    The cynical side of me says that such a company will either be pushed out of the market by unfair competition, political wrangling or just be plain bought out by Microsoft like so many others. Or that the MS robotics Toolkit will confuse the market until a real platform is available.
    GSchoep
  • Hysterical

    If you read one of Microsoft's EULA's and consider applying it to a robot, it's beyond hysterical.
    Who wants a robot with a built-in kill switch if it fails WGA and can't be reactivated?

    http://www.securityfocus.com/columnists/423?ref=rss
    Ole Man
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