Microsoft Shuts Down Its Robotics Group

Seven years after Bill Gates proclaimed that robotics was the next hot field, Microsoft has given up on robots

3 min read
Microsoft Shuts Down Its Robotics Group
Simulation of a mobile robot platform created by the Microsoft robotics group.
Illustration: IEEE Spectrum; images: Microsoft

In 2007, Bill Gates wrote his influential "A Robot in Every Home" article in Scientific American*, envisioning a future "in which robotic devices will become a nearly ubiquitous part of our day-to-day lives." The article reflected his belief that robotics was going to be hugely important, and Microsoft had to have a major role in it. Two years earlier, Gates had asked one of his top lieutenants, Tandy Trower, also a big believer in robotics, to lead a group with the bold mission of bringing robots into the mainstream

This week, word got out that, as part of its current restructuring, Microsoft decided to shut down its robotics group. (Two sources at Microsoft have since confirmed the news to IEEE Spectrum.) At a moment when excitement about the future of robotics seems to have reached an all-time high (just ask Google and Amazon), Microsoft has given up on robots.

Microsoft's decision may seem abrupt, but in reality the company's enthusiasm for its robot initiatives has been waning for years. After Bill Gates left his day-to-day role at the company in mid 2008, Steve Ballmer reportedly expressed dissatisfaction with robotics being just a "strategic initiative" at the company and wanted to know how it could become a significant revenue generator.

At that point, the group's main project was a robotics development and simulation software package called Robotics Developer Studio (RDS). The goal was to make RDS into a tool that would allow anyone to easily program a robot (doing what BASIC did for the PC, in Gates's view). But RDS was slow in attracting users, and the company was giving it away for free except to commercial users (which had to pay a fee). Gates and Trower didn't see that as a problem: they had decided that Microsoft had to first prove itself with the robotics community, and that they would look for revenue opportunities later. With Ballmer in charge, though, the lack of a clear business model became an issue.

Trower looked at different markets and decided that robotics could play a key role in helping with a problem many nations are facing: their rapidly aging populations. But apparently Ballmer and other Microsoft executives didn't agree with him, as Trower decided to leave and founded his own robotics start-up, Hoaloha Robotics, to pursue that idea. (Hoaloha has been working in complete secrecy for years, revealing very little about the robotic platform it's developing.)

'Robotic devices will become a nearly ubiquitous part of our day-to-day lives'

After that the group continued to work on RDS, eventually making it completely free in 2010. RDS adoption was still slow, and now it faced formidable competitors such as the Robot Operating System, created by Willow Garage, which gained significant traction in research labs. The last major RDS release happened in 2011. That year, the group showed off some demos, including a mobile robotic platform that used a Microsoft Kinect sensor to navigate [pictured above in a simulation]. As Kinect's popularity exploded among robot makers and researchers, it appears that the robotics group directed more efforts to areas like vision and navigation (just last week, the group organized an autonomous navigation challenge at an IEEE robotics conference in Chicago). 

But it's unclear what the group's latest ambitions were, and what plan it had formulated to fit into Microsoft's overall business strategy. IEEE Spectrum inquired about the group's activities over the last year and received no response. It appears that, as Microsoft sought to downsize its research activities, its remaining robotics effort seemed a stretch.

We're confident that the departing researchers will find positions elsewhere, but still, it's frustrating to see a big company like Microsoft exiting an industry that, to quote Bill Gates in his SciAm article, "could have just as profound an impact on the way we work, communicate, learn and entertain ourselves as the PC has had over the past 30 years."

* Microsoft initially submitted the Bill Gates article to IEEE Spectrum. But after a disagreement over how much editing the manuscript needed (ahem, we thought it needed lots), the company withdrew it, later offering it to Scientific American. I still fume every time someone mentions that article to me.

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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