'Partner' bots: The next killer robotics app? (And will Microsoft bite?)

Microsoft's Mr. Robotics, Tandy Trower, has moved into more of an "ambassadorial"/strategic planning role, as of late. But that hasn't stopped him from thinking about what could become the "killer app" in the robotics space.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft has been participating in the robotics market for the past couple of years with various robotics toolkits and related technologies. The public face of robotics for Microsoft has been Tandy Trower, who, until last fall, was the General Manager of the Microsoft Robotics Group.

Trower has moved into more of an "ambassadorial"/strategic planning role, as of late. But that hasn't stopped him from thinking about what could become the "killer app" in the robotics space: "Partner" bots, robots aimed at the assistive-healthcare market.

Trower and I exchanged e-mail recently. Here are excerpts from his e-mail to me (used here with his permission):

"I thought I’d send you an update on my status. I am still at Microsoft, but note though there was a change that occurred last fall, coincident with the latest release of our robotics toolkit. I turned over day-to-day operations of the robotics team to my product unit manager and I have shifted to a more "ambassadorial" and strategic role looking beyond just the development needs of the emerging new robotics industry and studying the potential markets for robots. I am happy to share some preliminary observations with you....

"Education continues to be an important market for robots. Competitions like Kamen's FIRST, Botball, and others are continuing to expand. That's good because apparently the US ranks 6th overall in the world with regards to engineering degrees. Even President Obama mentioned educational robot competitions when he introduced his new science and technology advisory committee. But education products can be a tough business, especially when schools can barely afford regular curriculum materials, let alone a $250 LEGO Mindstorms kit.

"However, the market that intrigues me the most is the assistive care. Just the unprecedented growth of the senior population is enough to draw my attention. With about 40M seniors now (600M WW), that's expected in the US to rise to 71M by 2030 and 86M (2B WW) by 2050. And that's just in the US. In Japan, the percentage of the population 65+ is already over 20% and that will be the case throughout two-thirds of the rest of the developed world by 2050. Baby boomers will be the main contributing factor as they start to enter the senior category in 2011. Further, the oldest old are the fast growing segment. By 2050, it is estimated that there will be 9M seniors in the US that are over the age of 85.

"All of this is going to put one heck of a burden on our existing healthcare system where we are already facing a gap in professional healthcare workers that is expected to grow even wider. And because boomers had smaller families, even non-professional caregiver support is shrinking. This could be a great opportunity for applying digital technology. I am certain you saw that Intel and GE already announced they are going after it. Also Google and Microsoft have made statements about healthcare, though not focused solely on the senior population.

"To me this presents a great opportunity and possibly the 'killer app' for personal robots.

"First, robots can help facilitate communication, whether it’s enabling grandma to keep in touch with her supporting family and grandkids or grandpa keeping in touch with his golf buddies. Social networking is already on the rise with seniors and if the robot can bring the PC experience to the senior it can be much easier.

"But there are many other benefits. The bad news is that at age 65, the likelihood of getting a serious neurological disease like Alzheimers or Parkinsons goes up exponentially. Not a pleasant thought since I will be reaching that age in 10 years. Even if I escape Alzheimers, there are a number of other chronic possibilities (heart disease, diabetes, stroke, etc.). The data I have been reading indicates that 90% of seniors will have at least one chronic illness, and by age 75, most will have 3. All this means a strong (and perhaps obvious) likelihood of diminished cognitive and motor skills. Why not have a robot that helps me remember key events and when to take my medications (an 87% probability once I cross the 65 age boundary)?

"If there is one company that seems to get this, it is Toyota. In the last 5 years, they have been increasingly more vocal about their intent to enter the market with "partner" robots that will include enabling seniors to age-in-place. And what company has a better existing sales, distribution, and support channel to introduce this technology. Almost every major city has a Toyota dealership and they have space, sales people, and because I think their robots are likely to cost more than a few hundred dollars, financing. In a few years, they may be able to say come on in and see our latest model cars and home robots.

"But Toyota is not alone here. Research in China, the EU, and other major countries identify elder care as a major target. In this country, several iRobot execs have indicated their interest in this market also. And with the Obama administration keenly interested in addressing healthcare, maybe some there could be some stimulus money applied here.

"So your logical question likely is what Microsoft is going to do here. All I can say is that we didn't invest in our robotics initiative just because they are fun. Robots are a natural extension and evolution of PC based technology. (Microsoft Chairman Bill) Gates reflected on how similar the market looks to the early PC market in his Scientific American essay two years ago. We’ve created our platform and tools to make development of applications easier because we believe that software will be the key also to robotics." What's your take? Do you think Trower is right and partner bots could be the next big robotics thing? Do you expect the Softies should and will attempt to take a leading role here?

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