From Mainframes to PCs: What Robot Startups Can Learn From the Computer Revolution

IEEE Spectrum

We have actually seen something very similar in the personal computer (PC) industry. In the 1950s, even though computers could be as big as an entire room and were only available to a selected few, the public already had a good idea of what computers would look like. A long list of fictional computers started to populate mainstream entertainment during that time. In a 1962 New York Times article titled “Pocket Computer to Replace Shopping List,” visionary scientist John Mauchly stated that “there is no reason to suppose the average boy or girl cannot be master of a personal computer.”

In 1968, Douglas Engelbart gave us the “mother of all demos,” browsing hypertext on a graphical screen and a mouse, and other ideas that have become standard only decades later. Now that we have finally seen all of this, it might be helpful to examine what actually enabled the computing revolution to learn where robotics is really at and what we need to do next.

The parallels between computers and robots

In the 1970s, mainframes were about to be replaced by the emerging class of mini-computers, fridge-sized devices that cost less than US $25,000 ($165,000 in 2019 dollars). These computers did not use punch-cards, but could be programmed in Fortran and BASIC, dramatically expanding the ease with which potential applications could be created. Yet it was still unclear whether mini-computers could ever replace big mainframes in applications that require fast and efficient processing of large amounts of data, let alone enter every living room. This is very similar to the robotics industry right now, where large-scale factory robots (mainframes) that have existed since the 1960s are seeing competition from a growing industry of collaborative robots that can safely work next to humans and can easily be installed and programmed (minicomputers). As in the ’70s, applications for these devices that reach system prices comparable to that of a luxury car are quite limited, and it is hard to see how they could ever become a consumer product. 

Yet, as in the computer industry, successful architectures are quickly being cloned, driving prices down, and entirely new approaches on how to construct or program robotic arms are sprouting left and right. Arm makers are joined by manufacturers of autonomous carts, robotic grippers, and sensors. These components can be combined, paving the way for standard general purpose platforms that follow the model of the IBM PC, which built a capable, open architecture relying as much on commodity parts as possible.

General purpose robotic systems have not been successful for similar reasons that general purpose, also known as “personal,” computers took decades to emerge. Mainframes were custom-built for each application, while typewriters got smarter and smarter, not really leaving room for general purpose computers in between. Indeed, given the cost of hardware and the relatively little abilities of today’s autonomous robots, it is almost always smarter to build a special purpose machine than trying to make a collaborative mobile manipulator smart.

A current example is e-commerce grocery fulfillment. The current trend is to reserve underutilized parts of a brick-and-mortar store for a micro-fulfillment center that stores goods in little crates with an automated retrieval system and a (human) picker. A number of startups like Alert Innovation, Fabric, Ocado Technology, TakeOff Technologies, and Tompkins Robotics, to just name a few, have raised hundreds of millions of venture capital recently to build mainframe equivalents of robotic fulfillment centers. This is in contrast with a robotic picker, which would drive through the aisles to restock and pick from shelves. Such a robotic store clerk would come much closer to our vision of a general purpose robot, but would require many copies of itself that crowd the aisles to churn out hundreds of orders per hour as a microwarehouse could. Although eventually more efficient, the margins in retail are already low and make it unlikely that this industry will produce the technological jump that we need to get friendly C-3POs manning the aisles. 

Mainframes were also attacked from the bottom. Fascination with the new digital technology has led to a hobbyist movement to create microcomputers that were sold via mail order or at RadioShack. Initially, a large number of small businesses was selling tens, at most hundreds, of devices, usually as a kit and with wooden enclosures. This trend culminated into the “1977 Trinity” in the form of the Apple II, the Commodore PET, and the Tandy TRS-80, complete computers that were sold for prices around $2500 (TRS) to $5000 (Apple) in today’s dollars. The main application of these computers was their programmability (in BASIC), which would enable consumers to “learn to chart your biorhythms, balance your checking account, or even control your home environment,” according to an original Apple advertisement. Similarly, there exists a myriad of gadgets that explore different aspects of robotics such as mobility, manipulation, and entertainment.

As in the fledgling personal computing industry, the advertised functionality was at best a model of the real deal. A now-famous milestone in entertainment robotics was the original Sony’s Aibo, a robotic dog that was advertised to have many properties that a real dog has such as develop its own personality, play with a toy, and interact with its owner. Released in 1999, and re-launched in 2018, the platform has a solid following among hobbyists and academics who like its programmability, but probably only very few users who accept the device as a pet stand-in.

There also exist countless “build-your-own-robotic-arm” kits. One of the more successful examples is the uArm, which sells for around $800, and is advertised to perform pick and place, assembly, 3D printing, laser engraving, and many other things that sound like high value applications. Using compelling videos of the robot actually doing these things in a constrained environment has led to two successful crowd-funding campaigns, and have established the robot as a successful educational tool.

Finally, there exist platforms that allow hobbyist programmers to explore mobility to construct robots that patrol your house, deliver items, or provide their users with telepresence abilities. An example of that is the Misty II. Much like with the original Apple II, there remains a disconnect between the price of the hardware and the fidelity of the applications that were available. 

For computers, this disconnect began to disappear with the invention of the first electronic spreadsheet software VisiCalc that spun out of Harvard in 1979 and prompted many people to buy an entire microcomputer just to run the program. VisiCalc was soon joined by WordStar, a word processing application, that sold for close to $2000 in today’s dollars. WordStar, too, would entice many people to buy the entire hardware just to use the software. The two programs are early examples of what became known as “killer application.”

With factory automation being mature, and robots with the price tag of a minicomputer being capable of driving around and autonomously carrying out many manipulation tasks, the robotics industry is somewhere where the PC industry was between 1973—the release of the Xerox Alto, the first computer with a graphical user interface, mouse, and special software—and 1979—when microcomputers in the under $5000 category began to take off.

Killer apps for robots

So what would it take for robotics to continue to advance like computers did? The market itself already has done a good job distilling what the possible killer apps are. VCs and customers alike push companies who have set out with lofty goals to reduce their offering to a simple value proposition. As a result, companies that started at opposite ends often converge to mirror images of each other that offer very similar autonomous carts, (bin) picking, palletizing, depalletizing, or sorting solutions. Each of these companies usually serves a single application to a single vertical—for example bin-picking clothes, transporting warehouse goods, or picking strawberries by the pound. They are trying to prove that their specific technology works without spreading themselves too thin.

Very few of these companies have really taken off. One example is Kiva Systems, which turned into the logistic robotics division of Amazon. Kiva and others are structured around sound value propositions that are grounded in well-known user needs. As these solutions are very specialized, however, it is unlikely that they result into any economies of scale of the same magnitude that early computer users who bought both a spreadsheet and a word processor application for their expensive minicomputer could enjoy. What would make these robotic solutions more interesting is when functionality becomes stackable. Instead of just being able to do bin picking, palletizing, and transportation with the same hardware, these three skills could be combined to model entire processes.

A skill that is yet little addressed by startups and is historically owned by the mainframe equivalent of robotics is assembly of simple mechatronic devices. The ability to assemble mechatronic parts is equivalent to other tasks such as changing a light bulb, changing the batteries in a remote control, or tending machines like a lever-based espresso machine. These tasks would involve the autonomous execution of complete workflows possible using a single machine, eventually leading to an explosion of industrial productivity across all sectors.  For example, picking up an item from a bin, arranging it on the robot, moving it elsewhere, and placing it into a shelf or a machine is a process that equally applies to a manufacturing environment, a retail store, or someone’s kitchen.

Even though many of the above applications are becoming possible, it is still very hard to get a platform off the ground without added components that provide “killer app” value of their own. Interesting examples are Rethink Robotics or the Robot Operating System (ROS). Rethink Robotics’ Baxter and Sawyer robots pioneered a great user experience (like the 1973 Xerox Alto, really the first PC), but its applications were difficult to extend beyond simple pick-and-place and palletizing and depalletizing items.

ROS pioneered interprocess communication software that was adapted to robotic needs (multiple computers, different programming languages) and the idea of software modularity in robotics, but—in the absence of a common hardware platform—hasn’t yet delivered a single application, e.g. for navigation, path planning, or grasping, that performs beyond research-grade demonstration level and won’t get discarded once developers turn to production systems. At the same time, an increasing number of robotic devices, such as robot arms or 3D perception systems that offer intelligent functionality, provide other ways to wire them together that do not require an intermediary computer, while keeping close control over the real-time aspects of their hardware.

At my company, Robotic Materials Inc., we have made strides to identify a few applications such as bin picking and assembly, making them configurable with a single click by combining machine learning and optimization with an intuitive user interface. Here, users can define object classes and how to grasp them using a web browser, which then appear as first-class objects in a robot-specific graphical programming language. We have also done this for assembly, allowing users to stack perception-based picking and force-based assembly primitives by simply dragging and dropping appropriate commands together.

While such an approach might answer the question of a killer app for robots priced in the “minicomputer” range, it is unclear how killer app-type value can be generated with robots in the less-than-$5000 category. A possible answer is two-fold: First, with low-cost arms, mobility platforms, and entertainment devices continuously improving, a confluence of technology readiness and user innovation, like with the Apple II and VisiCalc, will eventually happen. For example, there is not much innovation needed to turn Misty into a home security system; the uArm into a low-cost bin-picking system; or an Aibo-like device into a therapeutic system for the elderly or children with autism.

Second, robots and their components have to become dramatically cheaper. Indeed, computers have seen an exponential reduction in price accompanied by an exponential increase in computational power, thanks in great part to Moore’s Law. This development has helped robotics too, allowing us to reach breakthroughs in mobility and manipulation due to the ability to process massive amounts of image and depth data in real-time, and we can expect it to continue to do so.

Is there a Moore’s Law for robots?

One might ask, however, how a similar dynamics might be possible for robots as a whole, including all their motors and gears, and what a “Moore’s Law” would look like for the robotics industry. Here, it helps to remember that the perpetuation of  Moore’s Law is not the reason, but the result of the PC revolution. Indeed, the first killer apps for bookkeeping, editing, and gaming were so good that they unleashed tremendous consumer demand, beating the benchmark on what was thought to be physically possible over and over again. (I vividly remember 56 kbps to be the absolute maximum data rate for copper phone lines until DSL appeared.)

That these economies of scale are also applicable to mechatronics is impressively demonstrated by the car industry. A good example is the 2020 Prius Prime, a highly computerized plug-in hybrid, that is available for one third of the cost of my company’s GPR-1 mobile manipulator while being orders of magnitude more complex, sporting an electrical motor, a combustion engine, and a myriad of sensors and computers. It is therefore very well conceivable to produce a mobile manipulator that retails at one tenth of the cost of a modern car, once robotics enjoy similar mass-market appeal. Given that these robots are part of the equation, actively lowering cost of production, this might happen as fast as never before in the history of industrialization. 

There is one more driver that might make robots exponentially more capable: the cloud. Once a general purpose robot has learned or was programmed with a new skill, it could share it with every other robot. At some point, a grocer who buys a robot could assume that it already knows how to recognize and handle 99 percent of the retail items in the store. Likewise, a manufacturer can assume that the robot can handle and assemble every item available from McMaster-Carr and Misumi. Finally, families could expect a robot to know every kitchen item that Ikea and Pottery Barn is selling. Sounds like a labor intense problem, but probably more manageable than collecting footage for Google’s Street View using cars, tricycles, and snowmobiles, among other vehicles.

Strategies for robot startups

While we are waiting for these two trends—better and better applications and hardware with decreasing cost—to converge, we as a community have to keep exploring what the canonical robotic applications beyond mobility, bin picking, palletizing, depalletizing, and assembly are. We must also continue to solve the fundamental challenges that stand in the way of making these solutions truly general and robust.

For both questions, it might help to look at the strategies that have been critical in the development of the personal computer, which might equally well apply to robotics:

  • Start with a solution to a problem your customers have. Unfortunately, their problem is almost never that they need your sensor, widget, or piece of code, but something that already costs them money or negatively affects them in some other way. Example: There are many more people who had a problem calculating their taxes (and wanted to buy VisiCalc) than writing their own solution in BASIC.

  • Build as little of your own hardware as necessary. Your business model should be stronger than the margin you can make on the hardware. Why taking the risk? Example: Why build your own typewriter if you can write the best typewriting application that makes it worth buying a computer just for that? 

  • If your goal is a platform, make sure it comes with a killer application, which alone justifies the platform cost. Example: Microcomputer companies came and went until the “1977 Trinity” intersected with the killer apps spreadsheet and word processors. Corollary: You can also get lucky. 

  • Use an open architecture, which creates an ecosystem where others compete on creating better components and peripherals, while allowing others to integrate your solution into their vertical and stack it with other devices. Example: Both the Apple II and the IBM PC were completely open architectures, enabling many clones, thereby growing the user and developer base. 

It’s worthwhile pursuing this. With most business processes already being digitized, general purpose robots will allow us to fill in gaps in mobility and manipulation, increasing productivity at levels only limited by the amount of resources and energy that are available, possibly creating a utopia in which creativity becomes the ultimate currency. Maybe we’ll even get R2-D2.

Nikolaus Correll is an associate professor of computer science at the University of Colorado at Boulder where he works on mobile manipulation and other robotics applications. He’s co-founder and CTO of Robotic Materials Inc., which is supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology via their Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) programs.


Source: IEEE Spectrum

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