Bill Gates on the Future of Robotics
In the January 2007 online edition of Scientific American, His Technificence Mr. Bill Gates of Microsoft fame has some interesting and potentially prophetic things to say about the near-to-mid-term future of the robotics industry. Gates believes that the field of applied robotics is currently in a pre-boom state similar to that of the computing world in the late 1970s, that existing and soon-to-come advances in hardware and software technology could make robotics as ubiquitous and relatively affordable as PCs are today—which, of course, was unimaginable prior to the emergence of MS-DOS and the early Apple systems. He envisions a world in which robots exist not only as industrial assemblers and military drones, but as PC peripherals with specific functions around the house or in the lab.
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 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.
One major worry with such a scenario is making sure that such powerful and world-changing technology is kept true to positive purposes. Left to the Pentagon or Mossad, robotics have their uses and then they have their uses, see? The potential applications of robotics and nanotechnology in medicine, in astronomy, in environmental and ecological study and operations, and in—dare I say it?—vacuuming are already mind-boggling, and more possibilities will be revealed as discoveries develop and techniques are refined. Have you driven a Roomba lately?
It bears repeating that robots, like computers in general, are only as intelligent as those who program them.