Much like the then-fledgling PC industry in the late 1970s, the robotics industry is on the cusp of a revolution, contends the head of Microsoft's robotics group.
Today's giant, budget-bending robots that are run by specialists in factories and on assembly floors are evolving into smaller, less-expensive and cuter machines that clean our carpets, entertain us and may someday take care of us as we grow old. The move is akin to the shift from the mainframe world of the 1970s to the personal computers that invaded our offices and homes over the past 20 to 25 years.
"The transition is starting," said Tandy Trower, general manager of Microsoft's 3-year-old robotics group. "It's like we're back in 1977 -- four years before the IBM PC came out. We were seeing very primitive but very useful machines that were foreshadowing what was to come. In many ways, they were like toys compared to what we have today. It's the same with robots now."
Trower said many countries are making significant investments in robotics, and advances are beginning to multiply. Robotic aids and companions -- some looking like an updated version of R2-D2 and others more humanoid -- will begin moving into our homes in three to five years as technology advances and prices drop, he predicted.
"Robots are really an evolution of the technology we have now," Trower said. "We're just adding to our PCs, really. We're letting them get up off our desks and move around. They're evolving into something you will engage with and will serve you in your life someway."
Some, experts though, are hesitant to talk of revolutions, especially in an industry that has seen many promises made that have yet to materialize.
James Kuffner, an associate professor at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, warns that any revolution could be lengthy, as robots likely won't soon be doing dishes and walking dogs for about 20 years.
"People ask me when they'll have a Jetsons -like robot walking around their house," Kuffner said. "I tell them the first gas-powered engine was built in 1885, but it took until 1915 before a large segment of the population could afford a car. When that happened, society was transformed. In the 1950s, the first computers were built, but it wasn't until the early '80s when the personal computer came on the scene. And, of course, it completely transformed society."
Kuffner said the he believes the robot revolution countdown should start in 1996 when Honda released the P2, a self-contained, life-size humanoid machine. Going by historical example, a good portion of the population could have a robot in the home by 2026, he said.
"The Roomba vacuum cleaner is often seen as the first successful home robot, but it's pretty limited," Kuffner added. "So, sure, you can say we have robots in our homes. But a humanoid robot like you see in Hollywood movies, designed to perform a large number of tasks without special programming or tuning? In about 20 years."
Neena Buck, an independent robotics analyst based in the US, said agreed that the robotics business will take off, but that it will be some time before humanoid robots are washing cars or dancing. First, she said, there will be single-task robots for house cleaning and the like, and exoskeletal robots to help people with infirmities.
"A Jetsons robot -- I don't think that's how it will happen," she said. "Maybe people need to change their vision of a robot."
Trower said that robotics has been slow to grow in recent years because of the lack of a standard software platform -- the very thing Microsoft mandated he create.
The Microsoft robotics group, which is tasked with generating profits within three to five years, is now updating its Robotics Studio software, which includes a tool set and a set of programming libraries that sit on top of Windows. The studio also includes a programming language and a simulator, so that developers can first try out programs in a virtual world. The latest version of the studio platform is slated to ship by the end of this year, according to Trower.
"The robotics industry needs portability," said Trower. "There's been no standard. We wanted to make it easy for the industry to bootstrap itself. I truly think software is holding the robotic industry back."