As Design News' Rob Spiegel reported last month, Google is developing a robotics division. After buying up robotics companies during the last several months, the company made this announcement in a New York Times article. But 10 days later, the Times revealed that the company had purchased Boston Dynamics.
Those are the geniuses who pioneered animal-like robots based on emulation of animals' actual movements, such as Big Dog and Cheetah, robots that move like bugs, and the humanoid stair-climbing Petman. The company has been under contract to DARPA since it began: most of their robots were developed for military uses. Currently, it's developing humanoid robots for the DARPA Robotics Challenge.
Google's expected target applications for its new robot division are in manufacturing and retailing, and its other robot purchases are right in line. So why did it buy Boston Dynamics, makers of innovative Big Dog, shown here, and the leading-edge military robot company?
(Source: Boston Dynamics)
I'm not surprised that Google wants to get into robotics. It's certainly an area of technological growth -- in fact, multiple technologies. But the first Times article reported that Google's expected target applications are in manufacturing and retailing. Its previous robot purchases are companies that specialize in technology you'd expect to find in that environment, like robotic arms, grasping hands, and machine vision.
So why did Google buy military robot technology? Boston Dynamics' robots aren't little four-wheeled baby tanks, either, like some military or search and rescue bots. They're big, strong, rugged, autonomous machines built with sophisticated and sometimes revolutionary technology. The company's founder, Marc Raibert, is a former professor at Carnegie Mellon University and MIT, and considered by many to be a robotics visionary.
The fact that the Massive Dynamic of this world (a Fringe reference) -- a company said to have more computers than any other -- wants to use military robot technology sets me back. I'm not the only one that finds this a puzzling, even unsettling, move. As is usual in much of the press on robots, some coverage of the Boston Dynamics purchase was accompanied by jokes about our robot overlords and mentions of the Terminator movies. The funniest, I think, was a blogsite called Bustle. The headline for that blog reads, "Google Buys Boston Dynamics, Will Soon Be God."
The blog that echoes my thoughts the most was Forbes' Robert Hof. He cited Google's extensive information gathering on its users, its huge computer network, and its new artificial intelligence team, as cause for concern when combined with autonomous military robots. That part appeared to be a joke. But like him, I wonder what Google intends to do with this combination. It seems far too high-powered for the factory, and a curious business move. I'm not at all sure this is a good thing.
I agree with RBPrice, although not just for battery reasons. BigDog delivering mail or stocking shelves seems like expensive, massive overkill. Not exactly an appropriate application of technology to the tasks at hand.
Until someone comes up with a battery that will last all day, I don't see Big Dog wandering around NYC or Boston etc. deliverying mail all day. Ditto, restocking shelves in the local WalMart store. The re-stocking could be done with today's technology in guided vehicles combined with a robot - at a horrendus cost.
Search and rescue, bomb disposal - pretty much already covered. And from a military standpoint this former Marine wonders how useful they would be when encombered with armor plate to keep the bad guys from blowing them away with a single 7.62 mm round. The American indian quickly learned that the US Calvery didn't have any armor on their horses.
I think the view in the article is a bit paranoid. On an overall level there really isn't any difference between commercial and military robotics. It is just the application that is different. The technical advances made by BD as a military contractor will be very useful in commercial applications. Nothing different from what's been happening for hundreds of years. Just think about how often all sorts of technology developed for the military has found commercial applications. To give an example, think of the work done by BD to make a stable platform that can find it's way around obstacles while carrying a heavy load. Now think about a robot stocking grocery shelves without trampling customers. Same robot, different application.
eafpres, thanks for your detailed and thoughtful comments. I agree with you about the manufacturing application not making a lot of sense competitively. Unless, of course, there's some incredible innovation that will wipe that all out and leave it in the dust. The fact that BD was a pioneer in natural movements makes me wonder about that possibility: current factory robotic tech is still pretty clumsy and awkward. Some of the pick and place machines are very, very fast but that's only with a couple movements repeated over and over. So yes, I also thought of a revved-up Baxter. And I also thought about your #3--the sinister view. That's the one I think has people getting nervous. Good point about combining that with mail delivery and location (etc) information--yikes!
Even the most benign intentions can fall into the wrong hands. I agree with one comment in that Boston Dynamics has something GOOGLE feels is important to their overall goals and long-term vision. Boston has demonstrated their ability with robotic systems as Ann has demonstrated in her posts over the past several weeks and months. THEY ARE REALLY GOOD AT WHAT THEY DO. The fact that their largest customer is the "FED" really makes me nervous. (Please see NSA and millions of data points collected on a daily basis.) We are years away from "The Rise of the Machines" but significant intrusion into the daily lives of millions is happening right now. Boston Dynamics, GOOGLE, the FED. To me this could become an un-holy trinity. (Of course I've always been a little paranoid. Just ask my granddaughters.) I use robotic systems in my work but those are involved with automating manufacturing processes and developing work cells to provide added quality to the end result--the assembly of components. The accumulation of data from these work cells is used to calculate Six Sigma information, investigate trends and determine CpK. We DO NOT interfer with lives. Great post Ann and I feel your concern is right on.
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