Silly Walks with Python
Guido van Rossum retired in October 2019 with little fanfare – in industry, only a few engineers took any notice of his departure. Yet van Rossum’s invention, Python, is changing their everyday work.6 May 2020
For the last few months, a joke has been doing the rounds on social media: “If it’s written in Python, it’s machine learning; if it’s written in PowerPoint, it’s AI.” The background to this joke is the explosive increase in the use of the term ‘artificial intelligence’ – especially in the marketing departments of industrial companies. Developers speak about machine learning, for which they use Python – a programming language that has only started to enjoy success in industry over the past few years.
The father of this success is the author of Python: Guido van Rossum. Until 2018, the Dutch-born programmer was Python’s “benevolent dictator for life”, someone who had the final say within the community when it came to any important decisions about Python.
Guido van Rossum created the high-level language in the 1990s. In the developer community, users tell the story that van Rossum, a big fan of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, named the language after the British comedy series. In the early years, Python’s strongest growth was seen in Internet applications. With the increasing networking of machines and plants, a growing number of discrete manufacturing engineers also became interested in the language.
High-level programming creates flexibility, has a large developer community and offers hardware independence. In addition, there is a large amount of program source code and numerous sample programs, and the user is not restricted to the range of functions of an IEC, for example. Analysis tools, value-added software, databases and connections to web services now work via scripting languages and are becoming increasingly important for industry as they enable costs to be reduced or new business models to be implemented.
Combined with the open source zeitgeist, trends in industry towards cloud computing, connectivity, big data, machine learning, modelling, simulation, security, etc. are forcing automation to focus on established IT technology. Talking of open source, BMW recently published selected algorithms on Github in the hope that the community would suggest improvements.
Could van Rossum have suspected this in 1989 when he was tinkering with Python in the Christmas holidays? It’s highly unlikely. Van Rossum moved to Google in 2005 and then to Dropbox. He left the company in 2019, announcing his retirement – at the age of 63.
What remains is his invention, which – alongside other high-level languages – is now standard in many universities too. Python is quick to learn and intuitive. And so it’s hardly surprising that IEEE Spectrum – the magazine published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers – in 2019 once again named Python the top programming language .
Bosch Rexroth has also discovered van Rossum’s language. In addition to traditional PLCopen, IEC 61131 and G-Code programming, higher-level programming languages such as C++, scripting languages such as Python and graphic languages such as Blockly can also be used to program apps on Bosch Rexroth’s new automation platform ctrlX AUTOMATION. According to the Lohr-based company, users can write apps in Python and then execute them on the PLC.
However it’s not just in the automation world that developers are paying increased attention to Python. It’s now difficult to imagine machine learning without it – a language from Europe, which is always described as having been left behind when it comes to AI and ML. Python combines large machine learning libraries such as TensorFlow and Keras with fast runtimes. Large companies and startup entrepreneurs such as Albert Krohn of Nuremberg-based 21data use Python. His AutoML platform is based on the work done by van Rossum and other developers. Thanks to its community, Python is now up to version 3.8.1.
Robotics developers have also put their trust in the language from the Netherlands. Many engineers initially work with Python in the ROS (Robot Operating System) ecosystem, which can also be used for industrial robotics, and then switch to other languages for more specialized tasks.
And then there’s the direct link between Python the language and the Monty Python comedy series. The Silly Walks sketch is remarkably reminiscent of machine learning applications in which Google taught an AI application to walk – a technical revolution, as the AI application was never actually shown what walking looks like.
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