Bill Gates predicts the future is robots

A robot on every desk? An automaton in every living room? Not quite Bill Gates' vision, but not far off.


Robots are the next big thing and the current state of the robot industry resembles the PC industry 30 years ago, said Bill Gates in the January 2007 issue of Scientific American.

Judging from what can be seen at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) currently under way in Las Vegas, he has a point about the 30-year parallel. As was the case with PCs in 1977, there are a handful of small vendors with real products plus unbounded plans, dreams and uncertainties.

iRobot, was displaying its Roomba autonomous floor vacuum and Scooba autonomous floor scrubber at CES. Both are thick disks twice the size of a dinner plate that navigate across a floor, cleaning as they go, until their batteries run low and then they return to their charging station. The company claims sales of more than two million units. It also makes scout and bomb disposal robots for the military.

At the show, iRobot announced iRobot Create, a version of the Roomba with added I/O ports and the vacuum assembly removed, which a robot developer can use as a platform for a larger design. Pricing starts at $129 (£66.14).

Senior researcher Bryan Adams claimed Create robots can be assembled in days, thanks to Create solving the mobility part of the designs. These included a unit that could pick up socks from the floor and another that took its direction and speed from the input of a hamster in a plastic sphere atop the unit. Adams explained that the Create kit has 32 built-in sensors, a cargo bay with threaded mounting holes (where the vacuum cleaner used to be), a scripting language that can be controlled from a PC and compatibility with Roomba accessories.

South Korea’s Microbot was also at CES showing another disc-shaped floor-cleaning robot, one that sweeps, vacuums and mops, called the UBOT. With its combined functions, it was about twice as tall as the Roomba. But what makes it unique was its reliance on networking – and not the wi-fi kind.

The UBOT is intended to clean wood floors that are striped with laminated barcodes that are visible only under ultraviolet light, says Sangbin Park, Microbot’s marketing manager. In normal light, the floorboards appear to contain rows of faint, square watermarks. Currently, the UBOT and its floorboards are used in new construction and the buyer gets the flooring directly from the flooring maker, laminated at no extra charge. Laminations for existing floors will be available later this year, he added.

The advantage of the laminated floor is that the robot can be given precise commands in terms of what room to clean, leading to faster, more efficient operation, Park said. It can operate without the lamination but will act like a Roomba, moving until it runs into something, he added. Microbot is looking for distribution in the US and when it’s available, the UBOT should cost about $1,000 (£513), he said.

Microbot was also showing a patrol robot provisionally called the Romi, basically UBOT with an added superstructure and a camera that could send pictures to the remote owner. There was no estimated price or availability time frame.

Yujin Robot of South Korea was also showing a floor cleaner and a patrol robot. Seony Park, CTO, said that the firm’s $700 (£359) iClebo floor vacuum – disc-shaped like the others – was superior to the Roomba because it was quieter, had a more powerful vacuum and it did not bump into furniture thanks to its use of dual infrared and contact sensors.

Yujin’s patrol robot, called iRobi, is about two feet high, with a face designed to appear friendly to children. When the robot is first acquired, the user leads it around the house via a remote control to teach it the layout of the premises. Thereafter it can be told to go to a room and take a picture and send it to the owner at a remote location, Park explained. He estimated the US price of the robot will be about $3,000 when it is marketed late this year.

Meccano, the French firm that makes Erector sets, was at CES showing Spyke, a robot Erector project that Michael Ingberg, Meccano managing director, said could be assembled in a couple of hours, in a variety of configurations. It can be controlled through the internet via a wi-fi link, taking pictures and interacting with a microphone and loudspeaker. The prototype shown at CES had hands that were purely cosmetic, but Ingberg said that Meccano plans to eventually offer a toy missile launcher as an accessory. The basic unit is expected to cost $269 (£138) and be available by Christmas.

Other booths at the pavilion were staffed by various Japanese government agencies, such as Robot Technology Osaka, displaying various Japanese robot products. Some were hobbyist kits, but there was also Paro, a ‘therapeutic robot’ that looks like a baby harp seal, except that it has fur, making it cuddly, and it is programmed to be friendly. The cost is about $3,500 (£1,795) but is so far sold only in Japan, explained Kevin Kalb, coordinator for the Japanese External Trade Organisation office in Chicago.

Paro won an award last year from the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), and METI plans to turn its robot awards programme into an annual event, Kalb explained. METI has also decided to make robots a major focus, to counter the effects of a declining labour population in Japan, caused by a declining birth rate and aging population, Kalb said.

Kalb provided literature from METI laying out an official plan to assimilate robots into Japanese society, through 2025. In the next few years, the plan includes support for the creation of a robot service market, humanoid robot development efforts, common infrastructure development projects and basic development for ‘strategic advanced Robots’. The ‘spreading stage’ should begin about 2010, and the ‘full-fledged spreading stage’ in 2015. By that time the Japanese robot market should amount to 3.1 trillion yen ($13.3 billion) and general-purpose self-directed robots should be in circulation.

Bob Allen, co-founder of Ologic acknowledged that the Japanese had about a decade head start concerning humanoid robots, but, as the Roomba demonstrates, a humanoid configuration is not always the answer.

His firm makes one-off custom prototypes for developers and start-ups. “Most successes have been with toys, and with some small projects for Disney,” he said. “The market is like the PC market 30 years ago,” he added, with no reference to Gates. “If we did a specific robot product now and missed our mark in terms of timing or market, we could go down the tubes. We have seen investor groups starting to look at the industry, whereas four years ago, when we started, they were not. They also want to invest in us, but we have decided that we don't need that.”

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