Thursday, March 22, 2012

iRobot and Willow Garage Debate Closed vs. Open Source Robotics at Cocktail Party

A version of this post originally appeared on Automaton, IEEE Spectrum's robotics blog.

By Frank Tobe, editor/publisher, The Robot Report

What's the best approach to building commercially successful robotics companies? Here are two arguments from two prominent people in the robotics industry:
  1. Identify a need that can be filled with a robotic solution in a large marketplace and build a practical and specialized robotic product to satisfy that need.
  2. Make it free and easy to design, program, simulate and test robotic applications and share your progress, problems and results with others all over the world using a common platform and the applications will come.
These two points of view were presented in a spirited cocktail party debate the other evening in Lyon, France at InnoRobo 2012, an innovation forum and trade show for service robotics. Here's how it happened, who they were, and what they said.

Left: Robert Bauer, Executive Director, Commercialization, Willow Garage, a privately held corporation.
Right: Colin Angle, Chairman of the Board, co-founder and CEO, iRobot (NASDAQ:IRBT).
I interviewed Colin Angle shortly after he gave a presentation about the need for robotic solutions in health care and asked him, amongst other questions, what he thought about Willow Garage's ROS open source software concept. He said he thought it was dangerous to the industry and was fearful that it was also detrimental to the monetizing of the service robotics sector in particular.

Later I was meeting with Tim Field from Willow Garage when Robert Bauer joined the conversation. Bauer was a substitute Willow Garage speaker because Steve Cousins had to alter his travel plans. In his presentation, Bauer made the point that hardware was farther along than AI software and that AI, 3D and application software were where the robotics industry needed help.

Out of fun I told Bauer what Angle said and he became feisty and said he'd love to debate Angle as to which method contributed more to product development and commercialization.

Coincidentally, at a cocktail party for speakers, exhibitors and hosts that same evening, I was casually talking with Bauer when Angle came by to say hello to me and I introduced him to Bauer -- and the fun began.

Angle suggested that freely providing such a key and critical component as the robotic operating and simulation system - and the extensive libraries that go with ROS - as Willow Garage does with their open source and unprotected robotic operating system (ROS) - was tantamount to letting the biggest consumer giant(s) gobble up any mass market applications and re-market them globally at low cost because they already have (or could easily reverse-engineer) the hardware, could produce it cheaply, the operating system was free courtesy of ROS, and the only real cost was the acquisition of the application(s).

Cover of 3/19/2012 issue of
Bloomberg Businessweek magazine
Angle thought that it was dangerous and led to losing a potentially American/European market to offshore commodity conglomerates and said:
Robotics innovation represents a tremendous opportunity for economic growth akin to automobiles, aerospace and information technology. If we are to freely share our 'intellectual capital' on the open market we risk losing the economic engine that will advance our economies and send growth and jobs overseas.
The issue of losing trade secrets to foreign conglomerates was the subject of this week's Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. Here's a particularly relevant quote from the cover story - and keep in mind that the operating system mentioned was protected but hacked; nevertheless the story is relevant to this discussion:
In November, 14 U.S. intelligence agencies issued a report describing a far-reaching industrial espionage campaign by Chinese spy agencies. This campaign has been in the works for years and targets a swath of industries: biotechnology, telecommunications, and nanotechnology, as well as clean energy.

As the toll adds up, political leaders and intelligence officials in the U.S. and Europe are coming to a disturbing conclusion. “It’s the greatest transfer of wealth in history,” General Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, said at a security conference at New York’s Fordham University in January.

[The article went on to describe the plight of AMSC, an American wind turbine developer, as they discovered that not only had their software been stolen, but Chinese companies had duplicated most of their component parts as well.] 
AMSC technicians tapped into the turbine’s computer to get to the bottom of the glitch. The problem wasn’t immediately clear, so the technicians made a copy of the control system’s software and sent it to the company’s research center which produced some startling findings. The Sinovel turbine appeared to be running a stolen version of AMSC’s software. Worse, the software revealed that Sinovel had complete access to AMSC’s proprietary source code. In short, Sinovel didn’t really need AMSC anymore.

... On April 5, AMSC had no choice but to announce that Sinovel—its biggest customer, accounting for more than two-thirds of the company’s $315 million in revenue in 2010—had stopped making purchases. Investors fled, erasing 40 percent of AMSC’s value in a single day and 84 percent of it by September. The company’s stock chart looks like the EKG of a person rushing toward white light.
Colin Angle has consistently held that we are going about developing the robotics industry wrong: “The idea that a humanoid robot with arms would push a vacuum cleaner is an image that has set many expectations and, in some ways, has set back the industry,” when, by just rethinking what needs to be done, we can build a product that satisfies a specific need (vacuuming), as iRobot did with their Roomba line of robotic vacuums. "I used to think that I was a self-respecting high-tech entrepreneur, but it took me becoming a vacuum cleaner salesman to actually have some success for my company, my investors and myself."

Bauer said that Willow Garage's objectives were to stimulate the industry by enabling participants to not have to reinvent the many cross-science elements of robotics ventures; to reuse software under the premise that by so doing it saves developer time and allows researchers to focus on research. By giving them free access to the tools, libraries and simulation capabilities of ROS, its many libraries, and access to the PR2s that are available for testing and experimentation, Willow Garage hopes to advance the state-of-the-art in autonomous robotics technologies. Says Steve Cousins, CEO, "We want everyone to work together. We're happy having a smaller piece of the pie, but having the pie be much bigger."

Bauer also said that, once a successful app was developed, then the new endeavor would likely lock down the operating system and application software in order to protect their invention.

Kiva Systems shelf-moving robots.
They slip under the shelves, screw themselves tight, and then bring the shelves to the picker/packers.
Supporting Angle's position to find a problem and develop a unique robotic solution is today's news that Amazon has acquired Kiva Systems (for $775 million!). Kiva Systems is the company that turned warehousing upside down by using robots to bring shelves to the pickers and packers instead of vice versa.

To Bauer, Angle suggested that ROS itself could be locked down, protected, and commercialized now - and that it should be done right away - and that what the robotic industry needs for inspiration is winning robotics companies - profitable companies with millionaire employees selling in-demand products, as would happen if ROS privatized; not more notches on the oversized belts of big offshore conglomerates. But he also said that unless ROS is protected and made stable and secure, it could never be used for sensitive (defense, space, security) solutions, and until it became rugged, secure and stable, it could never be used in factories that cannot afford down time from their robots or software.

He said it would make him happy if all the people that displayed their robots at Innorobo were successful and wealthy, but that the opposite was more likely because the right big-market robotic applications hadn't happened just yet.

The discussion went on and ended with Bauer inviting Angle to continue the discussion onsite at Willow Garage and Angle agreeing to do it.

I hope I have presented the two positions fairly because I think that both sides have merit. Using the analogy that developing apps for smartphones and tablets is similar to developing applications for service robots in the open source community of shared libraries, imagine how much talent is being squandered in the whimsy of making a fun app? Do we have to sift through the chaos and diversity of thousands of apps to find the few - if any - that are suitable for real business tasks? Or would we be better served to rethink how we satisfy real needs by building specific products to satisfy those needs?

What do you think?