Open vs Closed Source Robotics: iRobot and Willow Garage face off

IEEE Spectrum got executives of the leading closed source and open source robotics companies to debate their models at a cocktail party. Here's an excerpt, but it's worth reading the whole thing. [You already know where I come down on this issue]

[At left, iRobot CEO Colin] Angle suggested that Willow Garage's approach of freely providing such a key component as the robotic operating system -- and the extensive libraries that go with ROS, not to mention its source code -- was tantamount to letting the biggest consumer electronics giants 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.

Angle thought that the approach was dangerous and led to losing a potentially U.S./European market to offshore commodity conglomerates. (The dangers of losing trade secrets to foreign conglomerates was the subject of a recentBloomberg Businessweek issue.) He added, "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."

It was [Willow Garage executive Robert] Bauer's turn now, and he argued 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, Willow Garage hopes to advance the state-of-the-art in autonomous robotics technologies -- and the commercial applications will follow.

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Comment by Ellison Chan on March 22, 2012 at 1:20pm

Such arrogance.  Don't they realize that the average "offshore" software engineer can program circles around anyone domestic?  They're just not as good at self-promotion and BS, as the average Ph.D.

Comment by Mathew krawczun on March 22, 2012 at 2:23pm

@Ellison

I have to agree on the arrogance but disagree with your view, the average software engineer overseas are no different than the average domestic one. People are people it doesn't matter where they live, the idea that someone from country A is better than someone from country B is BS. People tell themselves things like that to make their often bias views on the world feel justified.

 

The real issue here is people like Mr. iRobot CEO there cares more about money than they do the state of robotics. It’s not the he doesn’t think offshore programs can’t write their own code it’s just that it would take time. Time he sees as a change for U.S./European market (read as himself and his company only) to make money.  it slows down the spread and growth of technology but it’s the only way for large companies like Irobot to even exist at all.

 

It’s the problems all big corporations have with open source really.

 

Robert’s view is he cares more about the science, the knowledge, that really all of humanity shares is more important. When everyone shares the knowledge anyone can start their own company anywhere in the world which means 1000’s of small companies and even more people pushing the field forwards.

 

 

 

Comment by Ellison Chan on March 22, 2012 at 2:43pm

Yes, on further reflection, my statement is somewhat inflammatory.  Sorry for that.

I just take exception to the US notion that they are the wellspring of all the technological innovations, and by banning the export of tech to the world they can remain so.  In this world of globalization, we have to start looking at how to induce the rest of the world to join in the open source, and open sharing of ideas.  This is not to say that there's no room for commercial software.  At some point in a software life cycle it has to evolve to the point where people are paying for it, and thus expect certain level of support.

Comment by Dez Socks on March 22, 2012 at 3:03pm

If something is closed source as with a lot of things,we have to rely on a single business's to move forward with technology.They are looking for large profits.money money money i am sick of it

As seen here on this site plus many others that provide open source tools and sharing of information,there have been great steps taken.An autopilot , 3D printers etc without all the millions spent trying to come up with ideas.

He gives out about giving away code but either way you try hold it back then people are still going to tear it down and expose all the info.

Comment by Ellison Chan on March 22, 2012 at 3:12pm

The argument should not be a question of closed versus open source.  It really is commercial versus public domain.  There's a lot of new innovation happening in open source, but what people don't realize is that there's a lot of tedious work and maintenance tasks needed to maintain a usable commercial grade software.  Programmers who are well suited for writing innovative software don't have the patience needed to maintain software.  I've worked in large commercial software companies for a couple of decades, and see the value of both types of programming.

Comment by Dan on March 22, 2012 at 4:03pm

I'm a bit confused by Colin's stance on open source software. iRobot uses Linux in their PackBots according to this former Engineer listed on Linkedin:

http://www.linkedin.com/pub/tyson-sawyer/3a/116/957

Also, iRobot demoed their Ava robots at Google with tablets running the open source Android operating system. In fact, ROS has been ported to Android. 

It probably is also certain that iRobot has used OpenCV computer vision libraries in their programs which is again open source and currently being overseen by Willow Garage.

My suspicion is Colin will have to back off of his supposed stance against open source software because he apparently does not drink the Kool-Aid that he is preaching.

Comment by Jack Crossfire on March 22, 2012 at 6:57pm

No-one seems to care anymore.  They're more concerned about phone vs tablet.  The headline is that it's ice cream sandwich or gingerbread, not that the source code is available.

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