At the end of the 20th Century people looked eagerly to the first decades of the new century with robots being the answer to many human issues. In the workplace this means robots doing the dangerous and overly laborious tasks and at home you have you own private butler or maid to abuse as you will.

Yes, they’re really coming, it’s just a matter of time.

When we say ‘robot’ we are not talking about the machines that make cars or vacuum carpets, we mean those sophisticated futuristic-looking machines that behave and look somewhat like humans; the sort of thing in the films ‘surrogates’ and Bicentennial Man.

There are plenty of people now that would happily accept a robot in place of another human being and even keep as a pet, a servant and even a romantic companion. Think how acceptable they will become when they are in the mainstream of everyday lives. There are many that do not want this but you cannot stop progress, as they say, and even today Amazon are sending out little wheeled buggies on deliveries.

Yes, already we see them more and more in manufacturing, delivery infrastructures and even the sex industry has invested huge sums. By the time you realise just how much has been done – they’re already here! That’s how it works, and none so obvious as the Artificial Intelligence field which gives robots the tolls to become sentient.

Should we be worried? No more than the luddites of their day I suppose. If it took a couple of thousand years from papyrus to print and another 500 years to digital, then it stands to reason that the next step to AI has arrived in an exponentially short time since the IBM was made and it means the next step from smart robot to an animation with legal rights is just around the corner, most likely in your lifetime.

A Robot in Every Home

The leader of the PC revolution predicts that the next hot field will be robotics.
By Bill Gates

Imagine being present at the birth of a new industry. It is an industry based on ground breaking 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 world.

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.

Scientific American Magazine
January 2007 Issue

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 present.