The Frontal Cortex

Bill Gates Dreams of Robots

If I was a smart man, I’d go out and invest in the stock of some robot companies. Bill Gates (yes, that one) is convinced that the 21st century will be the age of the robot:

Imagine being present at the birth of a new industry. It is an industry based on groundbreaking new technologies… But it is also a highly fragmented industry with few common standards or platforms. Projects are complex, progress is slow, and practical applications are relatively rare. In fact, for all the excitement and promise, no one can say with any certainty when–or even if–this industry will achieve critical mass. If it does, though, it may well change the world.

Of course, the paragraph above could be a description of the computer industry during the mid-1970s, around the time that Paul Allen and I launched Microsoft. … But what I really have in mind is something much more contemporary: the emergence of the robotics industry… [S]ome of the world’s best minds are trying to solve the toughest problems of robotics, such as visual recognition, navigation and machine learning. And they are succeeding. …

What is more, the challenges facing the robotics industry are similar to those we tackled in computing three decades ago. Robotics companies have no standard operating software that could allow popular application programs to run in a variety of devices. The standardization of robotic processors and other hardware is limited, and very little of the programming code used in one machine can be applied to another. Whenever somebody wants to build a new robot, they usually have to start from square one.

Most of the article is about why robots are no longer technologically impossible. Cool. But it’s worth noting that Gates spends zero time contemplating what all these robots might do. Clean my dishes? Suck up my dirt? Cook my oatmeal? Wait, those machines already exist. I already own a dishwasher, vacuum and microwave. My life isn’t exactly overburdened with mechanical tasks that a smart robot could help me with it. Besides, I spend so much time sitting at my desk that I’ve started to actually enjoy the few moments of manual labor I still perform every day. I happen to like vacuuming up dust, or cooking dinner, or rearranging my books.

Of course, there are a few chores that I really can’t stand. One of those chores is dealing with machines once they start to break, like the buggy laptop I’m using right now, which happens to run on a software program that Bill Gates had a little something to do with. Here’s the moral: I don’t want more machines in my life, I want better machines, which means that I certainly don’t want more machines that run on Microsoft software.

PS. Rest assured that I’m not picking sides in the Apple vs. Windows (Vista?) wars. In fact, my current anti-machine attitude is largely a result of my dying iPOD, which is really lovely looking but can no longer hold a charge.


  1. #1 Mark
    December 13, 2006

    I know it’s not valid to extrapolate from the past to predict the future, but based on Gates’ demonstrated technology foresight, I don’t plan to rush out to buy robot stocks. His one (and as far as I know only) gigantic coup in that respect was to buy an OS and sell its use to IBM. While it’s true it eventually made him the richest man in the world, his later takes on the future of tech have been less insightful.

  2. #2 Erica Ruiz
    December 13, 2006

    I dont care for robots. I think the robots that we have know like computers, microwaves, diswashers, are enough. Robots don’t and I think will never have feelings. The world can not compensate for personalization, and thru technology.

  3. #3 David
    February 8, 2007

    google ipod; look for diy battery replacement—with
    video—and your dying ipod is resurected.


New comments have been disabled.