Industrial robots have been slaving away in factories for decades, far out of the sight of the average Joe, but over the next decade the machine-human relationship will become a lot closer. In fact, futurists believe that there will come a time, in the not too distant future (less than 30 years), when it will be increasingly difficult to distinguish just where the line between machine and human will be drawn.

Some look at this with fear, others look at it as an opportunity. The South Korean government has set the goal of having a robot in every home by 2020.

No company has more influence on the human-machine interface than Microsoft, so it is not surprising that the software company has launched a new research group tasked with developing robotics software that will assist in the creation of "intelligent" machines. Microsoft Robotics Studio is a Windows-based tool kit designed so that commercial and individual developers can dabble in artificial intelligence. Its initial software product is available for download from the site, and Microsoft’s entrance into the sector is likely to be a serious fillip for the entire robotics sector.

How big is the robotics sector? The sector can be largely segmented into two categories: industrial robots and personal-use robots. According to the International Federation of Robots (IFR), the market for industrial robots is worth about $18 billion if one includes the software, peripherals and systems needed to support the actual robot units. Service robots for personal use such as robot vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers and entertainment and leisure robots are currently worth about $2 billion.

Recent data from the IFR indicate that 2005 saw a considerable increase in industrial robots installed in that year, with the US experiencing a 34% increase in installed industrial units over the previous year. Data from the IFR show that there were nearly 850,000 industrial robots in operation worldwide in 2004, and this is forecast to rise to over one million by 2008. It is worth pointing out that over 40% of all installed industrial robots worldwide are in Japan.

As for robot vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers and entertainment units, the IFR estimates there was an installed base of 2.1 million service robots for personal use worldwide in 2004, but this will rise to 9.1 million by 2008.

The age of the intelligent machine is quickly approaching. With Microsoft joining the fray, one has to wonder if the sector will be plagued by the format wars that have characterized the introduction of so many consumer technologies in recent years. Much of the fighting in these wars has taken place in territory occupied by marketers.

Another, more immediate, conflict will be over ownership of the digital living room.

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