Willow Garage Robotics

After hearing an excellent talk by Willow Garage president Steven Cousins at PARC last Thursday, I wangled a visit to the company Monday and talked to a few more people.

Willow Garage is a research robotics company in Silicon Valley which has a unique mission for a start-up. They are oriented to making an impact on the field of robotics rather than making an immediate profit. Cousins explained it in these terms: the average robotics PhD student spends 90% of his time building a robot and the remaining 10% extending the state of the art. If Willow Garage succeeds, those numbers will be reversed.

Thus the WG design is very general and very robust, designed to be very hard to break and also fairly safe in the hands of an experimental, buggy, program. It’s a gorgeous piece of hardware. In a move that resonates strongly with Foresight, their software is open source.

Wearing my futurist hat, I asked several researchers at WG how strongly near-term improvements in processing power, a la Moore’s Law, would affect the performance of their robot. By and large they didn’t seem to think it was critical. The present bottleneck appears to be software — ideas, algorithms, integration, and experience.

The OSS community may be able to make a significant contribution here. And because it’s open source, anything you add would redound to the world at large and not just the company.

Rosie the robot maid by 2020? I wouldn’t bet against it.

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