can’t see the forest

Bill Gates on the Future of Robotics

Posted in Bill Gates, Bioethics, computers, robots, Science, Tech, technology by Curtis on 1/4/07

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.

Robot / AIOne 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.


6 Responses

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  1. servant said, on 1/4/07 at 7:46 am

    I’m so glad you wrote about this Curt. A while back I was very interested in directed energy beam weapons developed by the PentEEgone and I had to deal with the sinking feeling that goes with the realization that we don’t put money into R&D for any other purpose than military applications. I think I have a draft in my blog folder about how – if they’d take their heads out of their military butts – directed energy beams technology could open up a whole new source of energy for the planet – well sort of new – the sun is old – but the means to gather energy from it still involve relatively non-scaleable technologies such as photosynthesis. Directed energy technology – in the right hands – not the people we’re currently allowing to call themselves “leaders” – could also be used to alleviate some of the symptoms of global warming by “beaming” excess heat back into space.

    So there are some potential uses for new technology that aren’t all that dark and ominous. It’s just that our imaginations tend to be dark and ominous.

    The creative people have picked up on this idea have provided quite a stunning “proof of concept” that such things might be feasible. I say feasible because possible has already been solved by the PentEEgone’s directed energy weapon.

    Did you see “Die Another Day” James Bond circa 2002? The evil enemy of all that is holy to British and American hegemony created project Icaraus , a “death ray” in the sky which collected the energy of the sun on “a silver skin” and directed it to Earth to be repurposed for agriculture and unlimited energy production.

    So you have to ask yourself – why does the evil genius always has a lock on such great ideas? And why don’t the real evil geniuses in the world – a.k.a – the government – with it’s truly unlimited R&D funds – get to work on this idea immediately?

    I think it’s because the major verifiable property of evil is its stupidity. If you had a think like that – that would literally steal fire from the Gods – why would you use it for short term gain? like one U.S. general suggested that such a weapon could be used on American citizens as a form crowd control. You know those free speech zones we like to set up around political conventions? All that barbed wire could be replaced by one directed energy weapon manned by one or two little psychotic soldiers like Lindsey England.

    Isn’t that what you wake up dreaming about at night? How to make better weapons for Lindsay England? Poor woman. All she had to work with those evil enemies of the empire was a cigarette and a dog leash. Imagine what she could do with a directed energy weapon.

    When I see something like that I automatically think: big stupids. you don’t even know what you’ve got there. that’s because you’re evil.

    The evil genius never thinks of what he can do with all his evil power. And all the empire can think about is how to get their hands on it and how they can use it on their own citizens.

    But seriously, even if it cost a trillion billion dollars to implement a directed energy beam that could collect excess heat from the atmosphere and “beam” it back into space – even if it only shaved a half a degrees off the global average temperature – wouldn’t it be worth it?

  2. peoplesgeography said, on 1/4/07 at 8:00 am

    Indeed, splendid post. An interesting peek into the future from “His Technificence” :) and who has better futurist credentials — as an aside, did you know that the oft-repeated claim that Gates said “640K ought to be enough for anybody” in 1982 is actually misattributed to him? The memory limitation was due to the hardware architecture of the IBM PC at the time. I didn’t until 5 minutes ago and thought I’d share it.

    Love this stuff, reminds me of the best traditions of American science fiction: Isaac Asimov’s brilliant robot-cum-sentient-beings stories (as adapted in I, Robot ) and Spielberg’s AI (not to mention Data in Star Trek). As science fiction tends to inform science fact, the robotics world will be an interesting field to watch.

  3. servant said, on 1/4/07 at 8:07 am

    Sorry about the spelum and grammur. I was typing in the dark!

    Ya ga ga ga ga! I yam what I yam what I yammer with a hammer.

  4. peoplesgeography said, on 1/5/07 at 12:11 pm

    Happened upon this interesting article in the Economist today: Trust Me, I’m A Robot

  5. Curtis said, on 1/5/07 at 3:57 pm

    We speaks English round these hear parts, Servant. Scour our posts as you mite, you’ll not find a sangle typ0. :-)

    Also that’s a very good point about the short-sightedness—well, okay, the stupidity—of R&D in the military sector. I think the propensity for evil technology that emanates from the Pentagon also has to do with profitability. They develop this stuff in the public sector and then the same taxpayers that paid for the development have to turn around and buy the technology back for the US or Israel or whomever else. Even civilian technologies follow that pattern, like the Internet—wholly military in application at the outset, and financed by tax dollars; then sold off to corporations which turn around and charge extraorbitant rates for a service which has already been largely paid for. But if we’re talking military tech, then we have very expensive equipment and contracts which can be whole-sold to governments around the world—so long as we keep the really good stuff.

    That is a very interesting article, PG. Robo-eroticism is, I think, not something even Toffler or Kurzweil would have predicted. But I could be wrong.

  6. Jim Lawrence said, on 1/18/07 at 1:43 am

    Google is the best search engine

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