Becoming The Microsoft Of The Robot World

Director of the Consumer Privacy Project Ryan Calo is quoted in the following story on the highly competitive atmosphere of the robot industry. Business Week's Joel Stonington reports:

Robots build our cars and electronics. They sort packages with ease, lift enormous weights, and perform microsurgeries too small for the human eye. In Afghanistan, robots are fighting our wars. What they can't do is share an operating system.

Today approximately 8.6 million robots are around the world, according to IFR World Robotics. That's equal to roughly the population of New Jersey. And most of these have been designed from scratch. For years, tinkerers in garages, professors at universities, and scientists at corporations have essentially been reinventing the wheel each time they develop a new robot. That means designing the hardware and writing the code that drives the actions. From robot welders to robot vacuum cleaners, the robotics industry at this point is essentially siloed.

But maybe not for much longer. Enormous profits await the company that could become the Microsoft (MSFT) of the robotic world. "There is competition over who is going to have the dominant operating system for robots," says Ryan Calo, director of the Consumer Privacy Project at Stanford University's Center for Internet and Society.

Standards are essential to the development and adaptation of technology. Competing standards confuse consumers and hinder progress. For example, the competition between Sony's (SNE) Blu-ray DVD system and Toshiba's (TOSYY:OTC) HD DVD system hurt sales of both systems. The logjam was resolved in 2008 when Toshiba announced it would stop manufacturing its system. As Calo says, "There are a bunch of groups that want to make the top operating system. It really matters."

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By open, Calo says it needs to be "nondedicated as to use, nondiscriminatory as to software, and modular in design." That's what Willow Garage is going for, as well.

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"It turns out to be next to impossible to debug software," Calo says. "You can have a sense of what a program is going to do, but getting it 100 percent right is not possible."

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"This is software that can touch you," Calo says. "Unlike devices in the past, these machines can cause physical damage."