Open Platform Drives Personal Robotics Boom

August 23, 2011 | 11:43
Open Platform Drives Personal Robotics Boom
Open Platform Drives Personal Robotics Boom
Robotics could be the next transformative technology. But the industry needs an open platform model to drive rapid innovation and consumer adoption, argues Ryan Calo.

After computers and mobile phones personal robots could be the next big thing. Commercial robots are already widely in use in manufacturing and warfare. Assembly lines are often entirely run by computer controlled robots. In warfare drones take over surveillance tasks and even kill. Or, geared toward a more peace-oriented purpose, the machine dismantles landmines like this cool robot.

Personal robots closely interact with humans in the private sphere, like domestic robots that’ll clean your house and robots that assist physically impaired people. This segment of the robotics industry is rapidly growing, says Ryan Calo, a scholar at Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society. In an interview with Jerry Brito in the Surprisingly Free Podcast, Calo predicts that by 2015 personal robotics will be a 6 billion dollar industry.

But to create the right circumstances for the industry to flourish decisions need to be made now.

Calo proposes open robotics as opposed to closed robotics to incentivize rapid growth. A closed robot is designed to perform a single task, it runs on proprietary software and neither its hardware nor its software can be adjusted by the user. An open robot is the opposite of all those things: it is designed to be able to do multiple tasks, it accepts third party software and the user can tinker with the hardware and add new modules.

The reasons for favoring an open platform become obvious when comparing robotics to the pc and mobile industry. At the dawn of the computer era manufacturers saw no other market than big companies who could afford hundreds of thousands of dollars for room-sized data processing machines. Only with the arrival of the Altair 8800 microcomputer in 1975 did it become clear there was a hungry consumer market.

The famed introduction of the Altair was an ad in electrical engineering hobbyist magazines like Popular Electronics. Model kit seller MITS expected a couple of hundred orders from dedicated tinkerers for the DIY computer kit. But within the first few months the orders had already ran into the thousands.

The Altair had no clear purpose but people were itching to get there hands on the powerful machine and figure out what they could do with it for themselves. Each newly devised purpose was shared by its inventor either for pay or out of enthusiasm. And each new purpose attracted new users and sparked new innovation. A dedicated purpose machine would never have unleashed the creativity and combined innovation of a diverse community consisting of individuals, businesses and academics.

This distributed innovation model disperses the risk for manufacturers and research institutions when it comes to R&D investments. Instead of spending resources on a fully functional robot which may or may not become a bestseller, R&D divisions can build components for existing platforms which have proven their worth.

An open platform also invites third-party software developers. Not only does this constitute a lucrative industry in itself, it also greatly enhances the gimme-gimme factor for people. A phone that can boost 350.000 apps is just more appealing than one that offers only 2.000. The mobile phone market shows that opening up a product to third-party developers it is mutually beneficial for all parties involved: users, manufacturers and developers.

A third aspect of open robotics, says Calo, is hardware modularity. The ability to add or remove parts. It allows users to modify the robot to their specific need. Perhaps you want to swap the indoor wheels of your housebot for an all-terrain undercarriage so the bot can come along when you go fishing. It also invites third-party manufacturers to specialize in specific robot parts like grippers or sensors.

Calo advises the robotics industry to start making decisions about these issues now. Because if the personal robot boom starts in 2015, now is the time to think about technology standardization and shared infrastructure.

Ryan Calo’s paper Open Robotics is free for download. First published in the Maryland Law Review, Vol. 70, No.3, 2011.

Source: Interview by Jerry Brito Surprisingly Free conversations podcast

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