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Ifs, ands and bots

Google’s breakneck acquisitions of robotics companies have sparked fevered speculation among gizmologists over what the tech giant is up to

Author Boyd Farrow Illustration András Baranyai

tech

When Google started snapping up robotics companies last year (eight in total), the tech cognoscenti got themselves into a bit of a froth. Of particular interest was the company’s acquisition, in mid-December, of Boston Dynamics, the Massachusetts firm with close ties to the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). As one online headline put it: “Google Buys Creepy Robot Maker.”

To some degree, you can understand the intrigue. Among the bots Boston Dynamics has made for DARPA are Cheetah, a quadruped that can run at almost 30 mph, and BigDog, a muscular machine that moves with ease over rugged terrain. Take a look at these things on YouTube—they are clearly not intended to fetch granny’s slippers.

Meanwhile, Google has also been investing heavily in artificial intelligence, most recently buying DeepMind, a British firm that is at the forefront of teaching computers to think for themselves. “Skynet is born,” blared another Internet headline, referring to the machines in the Terminator series.

Google has been characteristically tight-lipped about plans for its newly acquired phalanx of automatons. We do know that the machines are currently being bundled together at the firm’s new robotics unit in Palo Alto, Calif., which is headed by Andy Rubin, who pioneered Google’s Android mobile platform, and that they are almost certainly not being mustered in preparation for a war on humanity.

The truth of the matter, while not quite as dramatic as the Skynet scenario, does at least point to an interesting shift in emphasis for the tech giant. The overriding suggestion behind much of this recent activity is that Google is exerting its influence beyond the Internet and into the world of Things. Its apparent foray into the realm of fighting robots merely reflects an understanding that military research is where the money is.

“Google is probably hedging its bets by getting its hands on lots of different technologies,” says Chris Melhuish, director of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory in the U.K. “Forget Star Wars—these technologies could go into anything from driverless cars to home-assistant robots for the elderly.”

S&P Capital IQ analyst Scott Kessler agrees. “Unlike most companies, Google takes a very long-term view when it comes to investments,” he says. “Hoovering up these firms increases Google’s chances of staying ahead of the innovation curve, earns it development goodwill and gets all the brightest people working for the company.”

Noting that Amazon recently paid $775 million for Kiva Systems, a maker of wheeled bots for warehouse automation, and that Apple is spending $10.5 billion this year on building manufacturing bots and other machines, Kessler says its recent spree “keeps Google right at the vanguard of tech trends.”

One of these trends, of course, is centered on the notion of connectivity, the meshing of the real and virtual worlds. Indeed, Google has already signaled its intent in this area, agreeing to pay $3.2 billion in cash—its biggest ever purchase—for Nest Labs, a company working to connect domestic electronics to the Internet. Some industry figures claim that within five years billions of devices will be controlled remotely with smartphones.

Many believe that Google’s interest in intuitive robotics and AI means it is set to press robots into public service, too. Will Jackson, founder of U.K.-based Engineered Arts, whose perky bots are used by organizations like NASA as novelty greeters, says, “Robots could provide the interface for Google to dominate the ‘meat space,’ where it can use all its data to provide us with what we need and at the same time sell us more things.”

Jackson envisions a future in which robots will be more like friends than servants. “If a robot like C-3PO in Star Wars makes eye contact and speaks to you,” he says, “it is very hard not to talk back.” In fact, he believes that such robots will soon become commonplace and touch screens obsolete. “Forget robots replacing assembly workers,” he says. “By programming robots with vast amounts of data, Google could create the most knowledgeable employees on the planet.”

A robotic salesperson, Jackson continues, will likely be in possession of a wealth of information about our spending patterns, financial situation and other personal details. Which, perhaps, suggests that all this activity may not be so benign after all. “It is significant that the person behind Google’s smartphone app is now running the robot division,” he adds. “People are worried about the NSA, but Google is a far more omnipresent force.”

Boyd Farrow, a London-based editor and writer, recently watched online footage of dancing robots and robots designed to go into battle, and was considerably more creeped out by the former.

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