Wednesday, May 05, 2004
Robots and the unbearable blindness of the computer industry
A few interesting articles and then onto the continued, almost comical blindness of the computer/internet industry regarding robots.
First, from Government Computer News, a comment that DOD is expanding its investment in robotics:
This article describes recent acquistions of UGVs (Unmanned Ground Vehicles) by DOD. At present, these UGVs, like pilotless aircraft (e.g. Predator) are remote-controlled and have little autonomy. But with steady progress engendered by the DARPA Grand Challenge and the International Robotic Racing Federation this will change over time. Current UGVs are created by companies with sweetheart deals with the military – including:
“The $18 million procurement will buy Remotec?s mini-Andros II; the Packbot from iRobot Corp. of Burlington, Mass.; the Vanguard MK1 from EOD Performance Inc. of Ottawa; the Talon from Foster-Miller Inc. of Boston; and the Mesa Associates Tactical Integrated Light-Force Deployment Assembly (Matilda) from Mesa Associates Inc. of Madison, Ala.”
My guess is that these groups will be swiftly eclipsed by the numerous startups creating driverless cars for the Grand Challenge. After all, despite the supposed failure of robots in the 2004 race, several beat any previous autonomous UGV effort by these companies. One, Digital Auto Drive did it on a shoestring $50,000 budget. We’ll probably witness a grassroots robot revolution comparable to the PC rerevolution of the 1980s, putting unknown startups (Apple, Microsoft) ahead of old school companies (IBM, DEC).
Which brings us to Microsoft. The company is turning 30, and like all those Gen-Xers hitting the big 3-0 these days Microsoft is finding that it no longer represents cutting-edge youthful thinking. A major article in Time magazine spells it out.
Is Microsoft a Slowpoke?
On the plus side, Microsoft has huge amounts of money – over $50 billion in the bank, and it saw revenues grow 17% last year. On the minus side, Microsoft has delayed its next-gen operating system Longhorn (again) until 2006 and has said it will be minus many of the “cool” features originally promised. Despite this, computers will need to be far more powerful to run it. According to Microsoft Watch, Longhorn will require an amazing level of computer power to run. An article entitled Longhorn to steal limelight at winHEC says you’ll need the following:
“…the ‘average’ Longhorn PC (should) feature a dual-core CPU running at 4 to 6GHz; a minimum of 2 gigs of RAM; up to a terabyte of storage; a 1 Gbit, built-in, Ethernet-wired port and an 802.11g wireless link; and a graphics processor that runs three times faster than those on the market today.”
So how come? What exactly will Longhorn do better? I suspect it still won’t know I’m there when I sit down at my PC, which even a simple robotic device in a bathroom urinal can do.
However, one thing is sure: Microsoft isn’t getting the future. In 1995, Microsoft managed to reverse course and quickly adapt to the Internet, after being blindsided by work on Windows ’95. In doing so it avoided being swept into the dustbin of history by the Internet. But it doesn’t look so good for the future of robots that jump. Microsoft is still chasing the last revolution:
1. Microsoft is expanding into console gaming with its Xbox selling at a loss. Gaming is growing, but it is not a startup, next-gen industry. Game titles are not “new” anymore, and typical titles have a “III” or “IV” after them. The cost of creating game titles is rising and the number of game companies is dropping. This sounds like a maturing industry unlikely to show growth in 2010.
2. Cellphone technology – Microsoft has tried several times to create cellphones using a version of Windows (just the brand, really) and has not become a major player. The Time article implies it is due to Microsoft software being overkill, but I doubt it is the reason. The real reason is that Microsoft thinks of PCs when it sees cellphones, whereas the real purpose of cellphones is communication. I’m not “watching” cellphones or trying to use “productivity software” – I’m trying to communicate. Microsoft’s instincts are just wrong in this area. And by the way, cellphones are another maturing industry, not the exciting startups they were in the 1990s.
3. SPOT – this is one-way, digital information sent on FM signals to watches and refrigerator magnets – yet another incarnation of “push” technology which flopped in the 1990s. For some strange reason Microsoft thinks that we want to reduce our interactivity and get passive one-way communication. In this area the company is making the same mistake as the Hollywoood idiots who think we want to watch music videos on our cellphone. Dumb.
The unifying principle of these investments in the “future” by Microsoft is that they are driving by your rear-view mirror – they are chasing the last revolution, not the next one. Cellphone, PCs, and gaming were all developed in the 1980-2000 timeframe. They are growth industries but growth is slowing as they reach saturation, as PCs and the Internet have.
And increased speed doesn’t do much for these maturing industries that Microsoft is running in reverse to “embrace”. Double the speed of a game console and the game characters get slightly more realistic. Who cares? Double the speed of your PC and you’ll be able to run Microsoft Office under Longhorn. It’s difficult to see the change at all. Double the speed of your cellphone and you get – well, nothing at all except a shorter battery life. It already works fine.
To summarize the effect of a 6Ghz computer:
- Gaming – small differences
- PCs – none
- Internet – none
- Cellphones – none
In contrast, robotics is about to take off, and it can use the speed. For a robot developer a supercharged computer like that needed for Longhorn is really useful. Double the speed of the computer, and the robot gets twice as good. An Aibo robot dog running at 5Ghz would be able to process visual information much better than the current versions, and make more intelligent decisions when playing robotic soccer. A robot car using Longhorn-capable PC hardware would be able to shift form “2 1/2 D” to full 3D scene processing. This would have a gigantic impact on the capabilities of mobile robots.
Anyone remember the 1980s? This was the era when each increase in computer speed brought radically new software to the consumer. When the Mac doubled its speed, it went from black and white to color. When chips got faster digital phones got practical. Each time a game console got faster there was a huge jump in the games. Doubling computer speed in the early 1990s allows them to browse the web efficiently. Today, there’s little effect of comparable increases in hardware.
So, I’m not going to bash Microsoft for the usual reasons. But I do think they are becoming about as interesting as the power company. After all, in the 1920s tech boom power companies were the dotcom darlings. Today, nobody thinks twice about a wall socket. We all use it, but ignore its wonders. The same will happen to Microsoft, unless it wakes up to robots as the next tech boom.
By the way, this critique extends to the whole PC industry. Linux is not the future the way some imagine – replacing Windows with Linux is like changing the wall socket from 115 to 120 volts. It may have positive effects, but it is same old, same old… Strange how the tech pundits don’t even see this. Strange how the “top 10” lists of tech trends still don’t mention robots, despite commercial products like the Roomba and a rapidly expanding hobby community. Check out Servo for the Byte magazine of the robotics revolution – it’s coming, and it is coming fast. A few companies (e.g. VIA) know this. Even Microsoft will likely send a few reps to the upcoming Robonexus conference late in 2004. But it will be too little, too late. This guy quoted from Microsoft will be wrong, quite wrong…
“We have a treasure chest of technology that allows us to be very agile,” says Rick Rashid, Microsoft’s senior vice president for research. “If the world changes, we can change with it.”
But so what – Microsoft is helping robotics by forcing hardware advances! I’ll just dump Longhorn and use that 6GHz computer to make my car drive itself home.
Monday, May 03, 2004
Robots rise in Osaka while science falls in the U.S.
An interesting pair of articles today illustrates why the Robots That Jump will come from Asia, in particular Japan. The first of these articles shows a steady decline in the U.S. in the sciences relative to the rest of the world.
U.S. losing its dominance in the sciences (registration required)
This article has a bunch of excellent charts showing a serious decline in U.S. science, around 1995, the number of physics articles published in Western Europe and the world began to exceed the U.S., and this trend has continued for several years, resulting in about a 30% drop in relative US physics publishing since 1990. Another chart shows that U.S. patents have declined from about 60% in 1980 to 50% in 2003. Patents fell in Germany as well. There was a major rise in patents from Japan and other Asian countries, especially Taiwan and South Korea. More bad news includes the U.S. moving to number 3 after Europe and Asia in granting engineering degrees, and a declining number of doctoral candidates from outside the U.S. electing to stay in the U.S. after graduation.
A telling quote:
“‘”We are in a new world, and it’s increasingly going to be dominated by countries other than the United States,’ Denis Simon, dean of management and technology at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, recently said at a scientific meeting in Washington.”
“”It’s unbelievable,” Diana Hicks, chairwoman of the school of public policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said of Asia’s growth in science and technical innovation. “It’s amazing to see these output numbers of papers and patents going up so fast.'”
Soooo…what are the scientists and engineers in Asia and Europe doing? One answer is robotics. Here’s an article about the rise of Osaka, Japan as the “robot capital” of that company – a sort of Robo-Valley
Osaka Emerges as Japan’s Robotic Hub
This article notes that Osaka is actively supporting the migration and/or startup of robotics related companies, and that 154 of these companies have robot-related patents. This comes from over 20,000 small/medium-sized businesses in the area which specialize in manufacturing.
Some telling commentary from the article:
“OSAKA – Mr Yohei Akazawa’s 25-man company turns out precision parts for Airbuses and rockets, but his latest passion is making robots, which he believes could be the mainstay of his business in future.
Osaka is home to not only many world-famous Japanese electronics companies but also about 20,000 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) like Mr Akazawa’s that are all skilled in one or more aspect of manufacturing. Among them, 154 can boast of robot-related patents.
‘We ourselves are striving to become a company that can make any kind of robot that is put to us,’ said Mr Akazawa, whose firm is often asked to produce prototypes for bigger companies.
He is also in close touch with researchers at Osaka University, the city’s top tertiary institution and a hotbed of study into next-generation robot technology. It was recently ranked No. 1 in the nation in terms of engineering research and development by the leading Nihon Keizai Shimbun business daily.”
In other words, Osaka is putting together thousands of manufacturers with world-class university support to make mass-produced consumer and service robots a reality. Nothing remotely like this is going on in the U.S., where science is on the decline and the preferred careers are in areas like finance. The ‘high-tech’ industry in the U.S. continues to chase the last 1990s boom, promising faster computers, 24/7 computing, better Internet, and so on. In the meantime, robotics in the U.S. – though clearly growing – is not a priority.
What’s the consequence? The U.S. is not going to lead the robotic revolution. Even with money coming in from the military, most of the technology is going to come from offshore. And around 2012 we’ll see real robots walking off the container ships in Long Beach, CA, even as the dopes in Hollywood are using computer animation to create some lame virtual robots for “I, Robot VI: the Grinding”.
There is a bit hope in two places in the U.S. The first is in robots that the public will accept. Due to Hollywood scare-mongering by idiot screenwriters (who didn’t pay attention in their science class) the country will never accept developing humanoid robots (we will import them, however). But people in the U.S. don’t have the same – entertainment industry-induced reactions to robot cars. For this reason I feel that the DARPA Grand Challenge (where robot cars that jump compete for a $2 million prize in 2005) is more than a military thing. Instead, I imagine that driverless cars could be the point of entry of robots into the U.S. Due to the DARPA challenge, there are now over 100 small groups working on robot cars – the kind of engineering innovation the U.S. is supposedly famous for. In a decade, we may be seeing driverless cars racing in NASCAR and acting as “designated driver” ferrying drunken oafs home from their parties. See my article on The future of robotic cars here.
The second place for hope is the new, “Millennial” generation (born after 1982) that is just starting to enter college. Unlike the earlier GenX/Y cohorts, Millennials are being exposed to robots in school via programs like the FIRST robotic competition. They are being groomed for real-world science instead of virtual world cyberspace as was typical in the 1980s and 1990s. We could be training a new generation of innovative real-world engineers to replace the previous two generation’s focus on virtual world cyberspace fantasy.
That being said, I’m not very optimistic about the long-term prospects in the U.S. During the next several years the country is going to be preoccupied with other issues ranging from security to the housing bubble and will likely ignore robots except in B movies. Assuming we pull out of the mess by the end of the decade, we’ll arrive just in time to witness the robot revolution, courtesy of Asia and Europe.