School of Computer Science THE UNIVERSITY OF BIRMINGHAM CoSy project

BILL GATES ON ROBOTS IN SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN
Aaron Sloman

An article by Bill Gates was published in Scientific American, January 2007 A Robot in Every Home

It starts:

"Imagine being present at the birth of a new industry. It is an industry based on groundbreaking new technologies, wherein a handful of well-established corporations sell highly specialized devices for business use and a fast-growing number of start-up companies produce innovative toys, gadgets for hobbyists and other interesting niche products. 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."
I wrote the letter below to Scientific American, about the article.
A slightly edited (shortened) version of this letter was published in the May 2007 issue.
    From Aaron Sloman Mon Jan  1 02:50:06 GMT 2007
    To: editors@sciam.com
    Subject: Bill Gates on Robotics -- the need for better requirements analysis

    The real reason for lack of progress in robotics.
    -------------------------------------------------

    I think Gates is correct about many things in his article, especially
    his opening paragraph. However, as someone who has been working on this
    topic for over 30 years (including writing a book published in 1978: The
    Computer Revolution in Philosophy, now online here[1]) I believe that he
    has made a mistake that is also made by most people who work in
    robotics. The mistake is believing that the *main* obstacle to progress
    is lack of technology, or lack of solutions to problems, whereas in fact
    the key problem is a lack of understanding of what *the problems* are
    and how the many problems differ and are related.

    Thus most people are attempting to design systems without analysing
    requirements thoroughly. One example is the need to characterise the
    many functions of vision: too many people think of vision as not much
    more than recognition of objects, ignoring its role in control of
    intricate actions, in perceiving and understanding processes, in seeing
    possibilities for future processes, and in understanding causal
    relationships, e.g. in an old-fashioned clock. Those capabilities are
    not only involved in acquiring physical competences, but also form part
    of what makes it possible to become a mathematician. The ability to learn
    and understand school geometry is not normally noticed as a requirement
    for a domestic robot.

    We can deepen our understanding of requirements by examining in far more
    detail than roboticists normally do the actual variety of competences
    displayed by humans and other animals (e.g. children learning to play
    with construction kits before they can talk, nest-building birds,
    hunting mammals). However, simply observing does not reveal what the
    competences are, nor what the problems are that need to be solved.
    Discerning what is being achieved, even in apparently simple actions,
    often requires deep interdisciplinary analysis based in part on
    experience of doing AI and philosophy. I've tried to illustrate that in
    connection with the role of ontology extension in development, in [2]
    (among other papers and presentations on my web site).

    [1] http://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/research/projects/cogaff/crp/
        Aaron Sloman. The Computer Revolution in Philosophy:
        Philosophy, science and models of mind. (1978).

    [2] http://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/research/projects/cosy/papers/#pr0604
        Ontology extension' in evolution and in development, in animals and
        machines. (PDF presentation, based in part on work with
        ornithologist Jackie Chappell.)

    Yours sincerely

    Aaron Sloman
    Web: http://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/~axs/
    Honorary Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science
    University of Birmingham, UK

Further Reading


This is the version of my letter published in Scientific American, May 2007
As someone who has been working on requirements for robots for more
than 30 years, I believe that Gates has made a mistake (as have most
in the field) in thinking that the main obstacle to progress is a
lack of solutions to problems. In truth, the key obstacle is a lack
of understanding of what the problems are, how they differ and how
they are related.

Most robotics engineers are attempting to design systems without
thoroughly analyzing the requirements necessary to make them
functional. One example is the need to characterize the many
functions of vision. Too many people think of vision as simply the
recognition of objects and ignore its role in controlling intricate
actions, perceiving and understanding processes, seeing
possibilities for future processes, and comprehending causal
relations.

We can deepen our understanding of requirements by examining in far
more detail than roboticists typically do the actual variety of
competences displayed by humans and other animals. But simple
observation will not reveal the nature of such competences nor what
problems need to be solved for a robot to achieve them. Discerning
what is being achieved, even in apparently simple actions, often
requires deep interdisciplinary analysis based in part on experience
in artificial intelligence and philosophy.

Last updated: 18 May 2007