Bill Gates has written an interesting article in Scientific American, A Robot in Every Home, in which he argues that robot technology stands where computer technology did thirty years ago, on the eve of the PC Revolution:
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.
What robots require to really take off the way PCs did is, naturally, a standardized operating system (Windows for 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.
Indeed, Gates foresees robots becoming a whole new class of PC peripherals:
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 … 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.
I only hope that Microsoft will not allow Windows for Robots to ship with any security holes. Virtual botnets are bad enough. When they take physical form, we’re in big trouble.