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Scientific American: Bill Gates: A Robot in Every Home   Topic List   < Prev Topic  |  Next Topic >
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Bill Gates: A Robot in Every Home

[Linked by Arts & Letters Daily.]
2006 Beethoven's Birthday

The leader of the PC revolution predicts that the next hot field
will be robotics

Imagine being present at the birth of a new industry. It is an
industry based on groundbreaking new technologies, wherein a
handful of well-established corporations sell highly specialized
devices for business use and a fast-growing number of start-up
companies produce innovative toys, gadgets for hobbyists and other
interesting niche products. But it is also a highly fragmented
industry with few common standards or platforms. Projects are
complex, progress is slow, and practical applications are
relatively rare. In fact, for all the excitement and promise, no
one can say with any certainty when--or even if--this industry will
achieve critical mass. If it does, though, it may well change the

Of course, the paragraph above could be a description of the
computer industry during the mid-1970s, around the time that Paul
Allen and I launched Microsoft. Back then, big, expensive mainframe
computers ran the back-office operations for major companies,
governmental departments and other institutions. Researchers at
leading universities and industrial laboratories were creating the
basic building blocks that would make the information age possible.
Intel had just introduced the 8080 microprocessor, and Atari was
selling the popular electronic game Pong. At homegrown computer
clubs, enthusiasts struggled to figure out exactly what this new
technology was good for.

But what I really have in mind is something much more contemporary:
the emergence of the robotics industry, which is developing in much
the same way that the computer business did 30 years ago. Think of
the manufacturing robots currently used on automobile assembly
lines as the equivalent of yesterday's mainframes. The industry's
niche products include robotic arms that perform surgery,
surveillance robots deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan that dispose
of roadside bombs, and domestic robots that vacuum the floor.
Electronics companies have made robotic toys that can imitate
people or dogs or dinosaurs, and hobbyists are anxious to get their
hands on the latest version of the Lego robotics system.

Meanwhile some of the world's best minds are trying to solve the
toughest problems of robotics, such as visual recognition,
navigation and machine learning. And they are succeeding. At the
2004 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand
Challenge, a competition to produce the first robotic vehicle
capable of navigating autonomously over a rugged 142-mile course
through the Mojave Desert, the top competitor managed to travel
just 7.4 miles before breaking down. In 2005, though, five vehicles
covered the complete distance, and the race's winner did it at an
average speed of 19.1 miles an hour. (In another intriguing
parallel between the robotics and computer industries, DARPA also
funded the work that led to the creation of Arpanet, the precursor
to the Internet.)

What is more, 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

From Science Fiction to Reality

The word "robot" was popularized in 1921 by Czech playwright Karel
Capek, but people have envisioned creating robotlike devices for
thousands of years. In Greek and Roman mythology, the gods of
metalwork built mechanical servants made from gold. In the first
century A.D., Heron of Alexandria--the great engineer credited with
inventing the first steam engine--designed intriguing automatons,
including one said to have the ability to talk. Leonardo da Vinci's
1495 sketch of a mechanical knight, which could sit up and move its
arms and legs, is considered to be the first plan for a humanoid

Over the past century, anthropomorphic machines have become
familiar figures in popular culture through books such as Isaac
Asimov's I, Robot, movies such as Star Wars and television shows
such as Star Trek. The popularity of robots in fiction indicates
that people are receptive to the idea that these machines will one
day walk among us as helpers and even as companions. Nevertheless,
although robots play a vital role in industries such as automobile
manufacturing--where there is about one robot for every 10
workers--the fact is that we have a long way to go before real
robots catch up with their science-fiction counterparts.

One reason for this gap is that it has been much harder than
expected to enable computers and robots to sense their surrounding
environment and to react quickly and accurately. It has proved
extremely difficult to give robots the capabilities that humans
take for granted--for example, the abilities to orient themselves
with respect to the objects in a room, to respond to sounds and
interpret speech, and to grasp objects of varying sizes, textures
and fragility. Even something as simple as telling the difference
between an open door and a window can be devilishly tricky for a

But researchers are starting to find the answers. One trend that
has helped them is the increasing availability of tremendous
amounts of computer power. One megahertz of processing power, which
cost more than $7,000 in 1970, can now be purchased for just
pennies. The price of a megabit of storage has seen a similar
decline. The access to cheap computing power has permitted
scientists to work on many of the hard problems that are
fundamental to making robots practical. Today, for example,
voice-recognition programs can identify words quite well, but a far
greater challenge will be building machines that can understand
what those words mean in context. As computing capacity continues
to expand, robot designers will have the processing power they need
to tackle issues of ever greater complexity.

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.

Now robot builders can also add Global Positioning System chips,
video cameras, array microphones (which are better than
conventional microphones at distinguishing a voice from background
noise) and a host of additional sensors for a reasonable expense.
The resulting enhancement of capabilities, combined with expanded
processing power and storage, allows today's robots to do things
such as vacuum a room or help to defuse a roadside bomb--tasks that
would have been impossible for commercially produced machines just
a few years ago.

A BASIC Approach

In february 2004 I visited a number of leading universities,
including Carnegie Mellon University, the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology, Harvard University, Cornell University and the
University of Illinois, to talk about the powerful role that
computers can play in solving some of society's most pressing
problems. My goal was to help students understand how exciting and
important computer science can be, and I hoped to encourage a few
of them to think about careers in technology. At each university,
after delivering my speech, I had the opportunity to get a
firsthand look at some of the most interesting research projects in
the school's computer science department. Almost without exception,
I was shown at least one project that involved robotics.

At that time, my colleagues at Microsoft were also hearing from
people in academia and at commercial robotics firms who wondered if
our company was doing any work in robotics that might help them
with their own development efforts. We were not, so we decided to
take a closer look. I asked Tandy Trower, a member of my strategic
staff and a 25-year Microsoft veteran, to go on an extended
fact-finding mission and to speak with people across the robotics
community. What he found was universal enthusiasm for the potential
of robotics, along with an industry-wide desire for tools that
would make development easier. "Many see the robotics industry at a
technological turning point where a move to PC architecture makes
more and more sense," Tandy wrote in his report to me after his
fact-finding mission. "As Red Whittaker, leader of [Carnegie
Mellon's] entry in the DARPA Grand Challenge, recently indicated,
the hardware capability is mostly there; now the issue is getting
the software right."

Back in the early days of the personal computer, we realized that
we needed an ingredient that would allow all of the pioneering work
to achieve critical mass, to coalesce into a real industry capable
of producing truly useful products on a commercial scale. What was
needed, it turned out, was Microsoft BASIC. When we created this
programming language in the 1970s, we provided the common
foundation that enabled programs developed for one set of hardware
to run on another. BASIC also made computer programming much
easier, which brought more and more people into the industry.
Although a great many individuals made essential contributions to
the development of the personal computer, Microsoft BASIC was one
of the key catalysts for the software and hardware innovations that
made the PC revolution possible.

After reading Tandy's report, it seemed clear to me that before the
robotics industry could make the same kind of quantum leap that the
PC industry made 30 years ago, it, too, needed to find that missing
ingredient. So I asked him to assemble a small team that would work
with people in the robotics field to create a set of programming
tools that would provide the essential plumbing so that anybody
interested in robots with even the most basic understanding of
computer programming could easily write robotic applications that
would work with different kinds of hardware. The goal was to see if
it was possible to provide the same kind of common, low-level
foundation for integrating hardware and software into robot designs
that Microsoft BASIC provided for computer programmers.

Tandy's robotics group has been able to draw on a number of
advanced technologies developed by a team working under the
direction of Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief research and strategy
officer. One such technology will help solve one of the most
difficult problems facing robot designers: how to simultaneously
handle all the data coming in from multiple sensors and send the
appropriate commands to the robot's motors, a challenge known as
concurrency. A conventional approach is to write a traditional,
single-threaded program--a long loop that first reads all the data
from the sensors, then processes this input and finally delivers
output that determines the robot's behavior, before starting the
loop all over again. The shortcomings are obvious: if your robot
has fresh sensor data indicating that the machine is at the edge of
a precipice, but the program is still at the bottom of the loop
calculating trajectory and telling the wheels to turn faster based
on previous sensor input, there is a good chance the robot will
fall down the stairs before it can process the new information.

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.

One approach to handling concurrency is to write multi-threaded
programs that allow data to travel along many paths. But as any
developer who has written multithreaded code can tell you, this is
one of the hardest tasks in programming. The answer that Craig's
team has devised to the concurrency problem is something called the
concurrency and coordination runtime (CCR). The CCR is a library of
functions--sequences of software code that perform specific
tasks--that makes it easy to write multithreaded applications that
can coordinate a number of simultaneous activities. Designed to
help programmers take advantage of the power of multicore and
multiprocessor systems, the CCR turns out to be ideal for robotics
as well. By drawing on this library to write their programs, robot
designers can dramatically reduce the chances that one of their
creations will run into a wall because its software is too busy
sending output to its wheels to read input from its sensors.

In addition to tackling the problem of concurrency, the work that
Craig's team has done will also simplify the writing of distributed
robotic applications through a technology called decentralized
software services (DSS). DSS enables developers to create
applications in which the services--the parts of the program that
read a sensor, say, or control a motor-- operate as separate
processes that can be orchestrated in much the same way that text,
images and information from several servers are aggregated on a Web
page. Because DSS allows software components to run in isolation
from one another, if an individual component of a robot fails, it
can be shut down and restarted--or even replaced--without having to
reboot the machine. Combined with broadband wireless technology,
this architecture makes it easy to monitor and adjust a robot from
a remote location using a Web browser.

What is more, a DSS application controlling a robotic device does
not have to reside entirely on the robot itself but can be
distributed across more than one computer. As a result, the robot
can be a relatively inexpensive device that delegates complex
processing tasks to the high-performance hardware found on today's
home PCs. I believe this advance will pave the way for an entirely
new class of robots that are essentially mobile, wireless
peripheral devices that tap into the power of desktop PCs to handle
processing-intensive tasks such as visual recognition and
navigation. And because these devices can be networked together, we
can expect to see the emergence of groups of robots that can work
in concert to achieve goals such as mapping the seafloor or
planting crops.

These technologies are a key part of Microsoft Robotics Studio, a
new software development kit built by Tandy's team. Microsoft
Robotics Studio also includes tools that make it easier to create
robotic applications using a wide range of programming languages.
One example is a simulation tool that lets robot builders test
their applications in a three-dimensional virtual environment
before trying them out in the real world. Our goal for this release
is to create an affordable, open platform that allows robot
developers to readily integrate hardware and software into their

Should We Call Them Robots?

How soon will robots become part of our day-to-day lives? According
to the International Federation of Robotics, about two million
personal robots were in use around the world in 2004, and another
seven million will be installed by 2008. In South Korea the
Ministry of Information and Communication hopes to put a robot in
every home there by 2013. The Japanese Robot Association predicts
that by 2025, the personal robot industry will be worth more than
$50 billion a year worldwide, compared with about $5 billion today.

As with the PC industry in the 1970s, it is impossible to predict
exactly what applications will drive this new industry. It seems
quite likely, however, that robots will play an important role in
providing physical assistance and even companionship for the
elderly. Robotic devices will probably help people with
disabilities get around and extend the strength and endurance of
soldiers, construction workers and medical professionals. Robots
will maintain dangerous industrial machines, handle hazardous
materials and monitor remote oil pipelines. They will enable health
care workers to diagnose and treat patients who may be thousands of
miles away, and they will be a central feature of security systems
and search-and-rescue operations.

Although a few of the robots of tomorrow may resemble the
anthropomorphic devices seen in Star Wars, most will look nothing
like the humanoid C-3PO. In fact, as mobile peripheral devices
become more and more common, it may be increasingly difficult to
say exactly what a robot is. Because the new machines will be so
specialized and ubiquitous--and look so little like the two-legged
automatons of science fiction--we probably will not even call them
robots. But as these devices become affordable to consumers, they
could have just as profound an impact on the way we work,
communicate, learn and entertain ourselves as the PC has had over
the past 30 years.

Sun Jan 7, 2007 6:53 pm

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Bill Gates: A Robot in Every Home http://www.sciam.com/print_version.cfm?articleID=9312A198-E7F2-99DF-31DA639D6C4BA567 [Linked by Arts & Letters Daily.] 2006...
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