Friday, May 31, 2013

Are We In the Age of Robots?

Author Bill Laumeister of Maxim Integrated (Maxim ICs) writes a thought provoking column in Electronic Design online.  He starts with an unusual analogy and goes from there:
Two thousand years ago, Roman citizens would count their slaves to determine how many tasks could be accomplished. Early in the twentieth century, people counted their electric motors to answer the same question. Today we count microprocessors.
He goes on to consider the microprocessor as a robot; “a mechanical or virtual artificial agent.”.  Like most of you, I grew up on Isaac Asimov's robot stories, "I Robot", and more.  I think of robots as having a body that moves around, or, at least a machine with major portions capable of movement.  My CNC mill is more like a robot, my desktop PC less like one, although both contain microprocessors.
Asimov said, “I do not fear computers. I fear the lack of them.”2 We agree. If we removed microprocessors from our homes, our standard of living would plummet.
Absolutely agree with both of them.  Processors are becoming one of the  most common features of our world.  Laumeister writes:
But back to Moore’s Law, which has been modified slightly over the years, but the concept is solid. Today we say that transistor density on ICs doubles about every two years. This is akin to compounded interest in banking and has held true for the last 48 amazing years. To illustrate, in 1971, Intel’s 4004 processor had 2300 transistors. In 1978, the 8068 had 29,000 transistors. In 1989, the Intel 486 had 1.2 million transistors. In 1999, the Intel Pentium III processor had 9.5 million devices. Then 2010 found Intel processors with 774 million transistors and 2013 dawned with 2.27 billion transistors. (chart)

As exceptional as the density increase is, the rest of Moore’s prediction has also come true. The price of microprocessors has declined, so they have proliferated everywhere. You can now buy little processors for less than $1 each. In high volumes, they only cost pennies.
(backgrounder on Moore's law here in pdf.  As an aside, with 2.27 billion transistors in a new processor of which many thousands will be made - and that's this year alone - I believe that mankind has made more transistors than anything else our species has ever made, even screws and nails).

Using the approach in his first paragraph, he goes about counting motors (158), electrically operated machines (87),  and finally microprocessors in his house (278).  I suppose it comes down to your definitions, but his assertion is that programmable processors that do things for us are robots.  He's the first writer I've read to assert this, and it doesn't sit well with me.  A Neato XV vacuum cleaner is a robot.  A processor controlled porch light, while handy, isn't. 
Unlike the Roomba, which takes a random path around the room to vacuum, the Neato maps the room with its little laser sensor, then uses the same sort of overlapping rectangles method that people use. 

Everybody seems to agree that robots in my sense will be becoming more of a part of our lives.  Anthropomorphic or humanoid robots are likely to remain an area of research interest because researchers seem convinced it's the Next Big Thing.  Robots that are essentially physically compatible with humans, hands of similar size and geometry, able to fit through the same doors and into the same transports, will fit more easily into our environment.  Getting one to wash the dishes or pick up odds and ends will need less adaptations to work in our environment.  Long time readers might possibly remember my post about humanoid robots two years ago, and the emphasis of researcher Heather Knight to make robots able to live better in human society.   There's a fine line between making robots that move with us, and fit in with us in our homes, but that don't creep us out.  To be honest, some of the robots I see do creep me out a bit. 

We have definitely entered the age of robotics, they're just not home robots walking around helping us.  The fastest growing portion of the robot industry is the service robot sector.  I believe robotic "waiters" like these from China will be coming here.
Although maybe they won't look quite as Lego-like.


  1. A couple of my readers have remarked on a book on my sidebar list of books. .SPARC Architecture, Assembly Language Programming, and C, as it's not the normal thing I read. I don't, it was written by a member of my extended family. He was teaching at a University out east when I visited as a very young woman. There was a robotic arm that would play ping pong with you. . built by one of the students. (OK, I'll just go stand in the corner and not touch anything.)

    Every time I get a bit big for my britches I open it and realize I'm really not all THAT smart.

    Great post, one of my close friends is in robotics, I am definitely going to share this with him. Thank you.

    1. "Every time I get a bit big for my britches I open it and realize I'm really not all THAT smart."

      [shrug] It's a specialization thing. I'm sure they couldn't hold a candle to you in your expertise. The things that matter are problem-solving skills - really, thinking skills.

      We're at the point where there may be two or three people in a whole company who even understand everything about a product, and they generally couldn't design everything in it. It is absolutely the age of specialization.

  2. "As an aside, with 2.27 billion transistors in a new processor of which many thousands will be made - and that's this year alone - I believe that mankind has made more transistors than anything else our species has ever made, even screws and nails)"

    And the RAM or Flash memory external to the processors that the computers and robots use have a rough average of 3 transistors per bit (varies with types of RAM and Flash memory), plus some for other logic on the memory stick, your 4 GB of RAM in your computer has over 96 billion transistors.

    1. Thanks - that's an excellent point. Multiply that 96 billion by a few million computers and get quadrillions of transistors. Add in the smaller numbers over the last half century, and it has to be that we've built more transistors than anything.

      I tried to find some details on the numbers of nails produced, because nails and screws are the only things I can imagine getting close in number. Couldn't get any real numbers. Nails have been around since about 3500-4000 BC, but were all individually hand made until about 1800.

      Interesting topic to ponder.

    2. I just searched for the number of PCs in the world, and the guesses go from 1 to 2 billion operating PCs. Add servers and game consoles and graphics cards and routers and etc. and you might be looking at 3 billion. Even at 2 GB a piece, it is roughly 150 quintillion transistors. Hard to imagine nails going that high, even 6000 years of nails. Even if the nails are now produced by "robots" or machines, which ironically require transistors to operate :)

      You are correct; interesting topic.

    3. Cool.

      And we're ignoring analog and mixed signal stuff. Admittedly lower density integration, but figure every iPod/iPhone/MP3 player has a hundred or two. Times a billion devices?

      Mind-boggling fact on numbers. Even in Haiti, probably the poorest place in the western hemisphere, 40% have cellphones. (Cuba has fewer, of course, they're commie).

    4. Yes, the latest A6 processor chip in an iPhone has 2 cores and 3 or 4 graphics processors and 1 GB of ram on chip. The on-chip ram is 1 transistor per bit, so 8 billion just for the in-processor RAM and just a guess 500 million for the processor? Add 8 billion for each GB of flash storage. The older phones and low end MP3 players will be a lot less processor, but still the storage size keeps the count up. 8 billion for each GB of storage space.

      It is just a marvel. And it's everywhere. I was in Duluth, MN harbor a year or three ago and watched a 1000+ ft ship go under the lift bridge there. I was just struck by the thought of how we came to build that ship. How could you imagine building something that big. I guess we just started from a little skin covered boat or wood canoe and just made them bigger and bigger.