AI News, Robots, Incorporated
- On Tuesday, February 13, 2018
- By Read More
Software pundits and tech analysts can be forgiven for overlooking Microsoft’s new robotics group.
Yet this tiny group of elite software engineers, housed in a small set of open offices known as the “Broom Closet,” handpicked by a 26-year company veteran who has the ear of Bill Gates, and tucked into a tiny corner of the company’s research budget, has put together a set of tools that may bring robot manufacturers under one roof, the way Windows did for most PC makers.
But manufacturers will use it to write software for their robotic components much as a maker of a device that hooks up to a PC does, whether it’s a printer, an LCD display, or a data-acquisition sensor.
Once such a service is written—telling, for example, a robotic arm to move up or down, grip or release, rotate n degrees, and so on—the action can be done with a single instruction.
Microsoft’s software, in other words, will do what MS-DOS and then Windows did: nurture an ecosystem in which new devices spawn new programs for more and more end users who in turn inspire yet more innovation—the same virtuous cycle that brought explosive growth to the cottage PC industry 25 years ago.
Imagine a robot helping a recovering heart-attack patient get some exercise by walking her down a hospital corridor, carrying her intravenous medicine bag, monitoring her heartbeat and other vital signs, and supporting her weight if she weakens.
The International Federation of Robotics predicts that 5.6 million robots for domestic, entertainment, and leisure applications will be sold from 2006 to 2009, and right now the field is wide open.
At Microsoft, even the lowliest new programmers have their own offices, and buildings on the company’s sprawling Redmond, Wash., campus consist largely of corridor after corridor of individual offices, each with a large window equipped with blinds for privacy.
There you’ll find a large open space—the Broom Closet—with a couch, easy chairs, a coffee table, a giant LCD television, and more robots, robot accessories, and robotic toys than you thought existed.
“Good things happen in small groups of people who talk to one another a lot.” In late 2005, Trower cherry-picked its members from every area, including two engineers from the first team to work on the Xbox, another project in which Microsoft tried to do something completely different.
And computing was moving to a services-based model, meaning that software would increasingly be written for a network cloud—a company’s network or the Internet itself—instead of individual computers.
Now imagine the timing and attention problems a robot will have—the feet want more information from the eyes before deciding where to step, while the eyes can provide that information only when the next step is taken.
In a computer with multiple processors, or a single processor with multiple cores, more than one thread can run simultaneously, each taking in a stream of data from a set of sensors and responding to the data in some way.
The CCR hides the complexity of managing multiple threads simultaneously by letting programmers create a software object called a dispatcher, which can manage multiple threads (typically one for every processor in the computer) and assign scheduling priorities for each one.
Although the main burden of making sure that a robot doesn’t get bogged down doing one thing, to the exclusion of other vital tasks, belongs to the operating system, and so-called real-time operating systems (RTOSs) have been around for decades now, CCR and DSS ensure that the benefits of an RTOS don’t get lost at higher levels of programming.
(Programming something that could guide a heart patient down a hospital corridor would be considerably more complicated.) The software tool kit also contains tutorials, sample programs, and generic robotics code, as well as a simulation tool that lets you test your program without having to risk sending an expensive robot down a flight of stairs headfirst.
He first considered biologically inspired technologies, such as neural networks and genetic algorithms, “because they’re inherently built on the idea of distributed processing and concurrency,” he says.
“I kind of stumbled upon people from the robotics community who were knocking on our door.” For example, at a meeting with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, the head of Lego, maker of the robot toy Mindstorms, told Ballmer, “We ought to do something together.” There was also a visit to the Microsoft campus by Red Whittaker, whose Carnegie Mellon team would soon do better than any other in the first DARPA Grand Challenge, a competition for robotic vehicles that required them to undertake an arduous trek through the desert.
The company has an entire group, now known as ERP, for external research and programs, that, among other things, hires hundreds of computer-science students as interns, funds faculty and graduate student research, and brings several hundred professors from around the world to Redmond every summer for a Faculty Summit, honoring five as New Faculty Fellows, and giving them $200 000 each to spend on their research.
And concurrent, distributed programming on multicore multiprocessors was the new, disruptive technology that was going to take robots out of their largely industrial settings and put them everywhere.
After a five-month study covering everything from Lego’s Mindstorms to the latest industrial robots, Trower reported back to Gates: “I told him I thought there was a business here for Microsoft and that I might want to run it myself.” Trower’s modest title—general manager, Microsoft Robotics Group—accurately reflects the genial 26-year veteran’s self-effacing ways but hides both his influence at Microsoft and a résumé tailor-made for running such a venture.
By maneuvering the new group into a gray space between Microsoft’s business and research wings, Gates created a start-up right in the middle of the vast Redmond campus, a skunkworks that had the boss’s blessing.
[See photo, “ .” Since the photo was taken, a Korean software engineer, Young Joon Kim, has joined the group, making it an even dozen after all.] No three members were born in the same country or were from the same part of the company.
Chrysanthakopoulos, a wiry, entertaining Athens-born electrical engineer who doesn’t stop talking until someone tells him to (a task other team members don’t shy away from, to everyone’s merriment), wrote much of the CCR and became the robotics team’s technical lead.
“They came here as individual contributors,” Trower says, “because they were very excited and passionate about working in this particular area.” Indeed, if there’s anything that unifies this motley crew, it’s a love of robots.
(He says their entry failed to make the second-round cut, largely because of the vehicle’s poor turning radius.) When I visited the team in March, several members were working on a sample entrant for a robot competition that the group was sponsoring at an upcoming conference on embedded systems.
Several mentioned that at their previous positions at Microsoft, they were 10 or 11 rungs below “Bill,” without knowing that they are now only one hop away—via Trower—from Gates, who, though he is no longer CEO or chief strategist, can still make or break a project with a single word.
At least the world Mundie imagined seven years ago is here, with data centers filled with multiprocessor servers and desktops everywhere sporting multicore personal computers for less than $2000.
- On Sunday, January 20, 2019
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