Microbots: Microsoft's multi-pronged robotics play takes shape

Microsoft is working on a variety of robotics-related projects, some public, some not, across the company.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor
Credit: ZDNet

In the early 2000s, Microsoft was all-in on robotics. By the middle of that decade, the company seemingly had all but abandoned the robotics space.

But this may be the year that Microsoft may be ready to get back into robotics, on multiple fronts.

When Microsoft founder Bill Gates was still involved in the day-to-day operations of the company, robotics was slated to be one of Microsoft's next big things. Microsoft built a programming model and framework for developers working on anything from Lego robots to industrial-scale robots. However, that product, "Microsoft Robotics Studio," never really went beyond the academic and hobbyist communities and the company's ambitions in this space withered.

Cut to 2017. These days, the home for a good chunk of the Microsoft current robotics work is apparently in Microsoft Research (MSR) -- specifically in the AI + Research (AI+R) Group under executive vice president Harry Shum. (I say "apparently" here because Microsoft officials declined to answer any of my questions on the company's robotics initiatives.) Shum is known for his work in computer vision and graphics and has a Ph.D. in robotics from Carnegie Mellon.

Microsoft's work to build a bot framework and service, unleashing an army of Microsoft and third-party chatbots across Skype and other non-Microsoft messaging services, is one of the public missions of this team. But there's a lot more happening that isn't as public.

In June 2016, Microsoft formed a research team known as the Aerial Informatics and Robotics (AIR) group, charged with "building intelligent and autonomous flying agents that are safe and enable applications that can positively influence our society," a k a "fleet of flying robots." The AIR group is building on research Microsoft is doing in machine intelligence and robotics and is meant to assist with everything from micro-UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle/drones) to commercial jetliners, according to Microsoft's own description on its Research site.

"This synthesis of algorithms and systems enables aerial vehicles such as quadrotors, soaring gliders, small aircrafts, and commercial airliners. The applications scenarios include Monitoring for Precision Agriculture, Pathogen Surveillance, weather sensing, enabling digital connectivity etc.," the site says.

It's worth recalling that these days, Microsoft Research's goal is not just research for research's sake, but research that likely will become commercialized in some way. A recent Microsoft job posting for Microsoft Research's Strategic Prototyping team calls out for "outstanding SDEs (software development engineers) to work on different aspects of robotics with the goal of actually deploying autonomous robots."

Invasion of the helper robots

There also seems to be other robotics-related work happening in Microsoft's Office Products Group and Cloud & Enterprise Group. And given Microsoft's mission to improve business productivity and processes, it's not surprising that its robotics work is happening in the same context.

In 2015, Microsoft officials began talking about some work the previously stealth Ambient Computing and Robotics team was doing at the company. Developing the GigJam Office 365 service that was built on the concept of "ambient communications" was one of this team's initiatives. GigJam -- which Microsoft delayed making generally available as planned last year -- is designed to enable business apps, software-as-a-service apps, and other services to share information across platforms.

The other part of the team is more focused on computer vision and autonomous robots in specific verticals, like construction, hotels, retail, and the like. These autonomous and semi-autonomous electro-mechanicals aren't the robots of Star Wars fame; they're industrial robots, like the ones that The New York Times recently described as key to China's factory-automation boom.

From a recent Microsoft job posting (now listed as an AI + Research job), which links the dots a bit more:

"The Ambient Computing & Robotics team is creating applications for the era where computer vision, AI-based cognition, and autonomous electro-mechanicals pervade the workplace. We are using this convergence to transform physical work in construction sites, logistics yards, baggage handling areas, hospital corridors, factories, restaurants, farms and more. A key aspect of this work is how valuable physical assets are utilized and made available for optimal, on-demand sharing within an organization and within the economy at large."

Another related Ambient Computing job posting talks about Microsoft building "a suite of apps" in this space. From that posting:

"We are building a new suite of apps designed for the physical world and made of cloud services that connect digital devices and sensors together, backed by state-of-the-art learning algorithms to recognize users, activities and assist users in coordinating tasks, handling emergency situations in the real world.

"Are you excited to work on a V1 project that combines hardware (cameras, mics, etc.), software (cloud services, ML, computer vision, virtual reality) and will redefine how people are empowered in physical spaces? Do you want to be part of the vanguard for the 4th industrial revolution? Then come and join our team!"

In September 2016, Microsoft invested an unspecified amount in Sarcos Robotics, a developer of dexterous industrial robots for use in "unstructured environments." Sarcos makes a "Guardian" line of robots that are meant to perform dangerous tasks in construction, manufacturing, oil and gas, mining, infrastructure inspections, logistics, public safety, and the military.

On the Cloud & Enterprise side of the house, Microsoft has been touting its work to connect its cloud services to cars (both self-driving and not) via its "Microsoft Connected Vehicle" strategy. Instead of trying to embed Windows everywhere, Microsoft is trying to connect vehicles and machines to its Office 365 and Azure services.

Microsoft is designing its Azure IoT Location Based Services to work with connected cars, home automation devices, drones, and more. I'm betting these services fit in with the company's various robotics efforts, as well. Again, there's also a productivity and processes bent here, since Microsoft's position is all roads lead to data analysis.

I don't know when or how Microsoft will go public with its robotics plans. But my bet is sooner rather than later...

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