Bob on Development

February 14, 2007

What Kind of Software Will You Be Developing in Ten Years?

Filed under: Products — Bob Grommes @ 7:13 am

I try to read the tea leaves and determine where software developiment is headed over the medium-term, so I have some idea how to build my skills. Once in awhile I try to stretch outside the current box to see where things are heading, because every few years there is some kind of paradigm shift. For example, in 1990 it would have been difficult to predict that by 2000 my software development efforts would transition from 100% desktop applications to about 90% web-based applications.

Although not a hardware alpha geek, I’ve long been interested in the possibilities of practical robotics. Our household, for example, was an early adopter of the Roomba vacuum cleaning robot. Alas, we found it just a bit too glitchy and not that durable, even though our all-tile home is perfect for the device. For whole-house cleaning, by the time you lay down all the infra-red “fencing” and occasionally rescue the thing from getting wedged under couches or help it out of close quarters that confuse its collision sensors, plus empty, clean, and recharge it, it’s just as much bending and stooping and vigilance as it would require to do it the old-fashioned way.

But today I stumbled onto the LEGO Mindstorm, a truly programmable kit robot that is pushing the state of the art of what can be built in the way of interesting and flexible, if not yet useful, robots. For a few hundred dollars (for the base model and a few optional add-ons) you get a highly modular, bluetooth-enabled robot that understands compass directions, has crude vision (just light and color, no pattern matching), basic touch and auditory sensors, and “walks” on two “legs”. Client software for Mac or PC allows simplified graphical programming. It is still only a toy, but it is likely a harbinger of things to come, and I would not be at all surprised to find myself, ten or twenty years hence, customizing the behaviors of people’s servant robots.

If LEGO can produce this much functionality starting at about $250 US, what is already available for a few thousand? And how soon will voice-controlled quasi-humanoid robot companions be doing useful work for and with us? I suspect robots will eventually be a whole new platform for software development. For the truly interested, LEGO has even released the robot’s low-level operating system as open source software. If you want a little taste of the future without a lot of cash outlay, this may be one way to get it, although personally I plan to wait for something just a little more compelling to come along.

What I really want is a robot who will fetch me a glass of milk and feed the parrots. That’s a little beyond LEGO’s current product vision, but I’m starting to think it’s not exactly science fiction anymore. And it has not escaped the notice of Microsoft, either. How many of you out there knew that Microsoft is already heavily into this game? I give you Microsoft Robotics Studio.

Emerging standards … Korea stating they want a “robot in every home by 2013”Bill Gates crowing about this being a nascent new industry… hmm ….

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