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.
Google may have plans to offer a replacement for letter carriers, robots that won't go postal. That might save, in one fell swoop, the USPS and Saturday mail delivery and also eliminate further growth of their mandated retirement fund. Robots don't require pensions when they retire, or do they?
I would guess the likely reason is there is something in Boston Dynamics' code that google is interested in. Balancing on legs while moving takes a lot of processing and Boston may have a more efficient means of doing that with minimum computing power.
It could also be that they have so much money they can afford to own something just for the "cool factor" of it.
I'll worry more when the Google company motto is no longer "don't be evil".
Here's what I think, based on Google's (and others) activities:
A huge market is in-vehicle info-tainment systems. The Automotives, by and large, all have crappy systems, although some people except On-Star. The future of in-vehicle info-tainment is going to be plugging in your phone (wirelessly, of course) and making use of its applications, bandwidth, and constant updates. The Automotives will just supply the cradles: large screens, easy connectivity, standardized safety interlocking for distracted driving.
The problem for Google is that they are late to the game and well behind others, like Microsoft and Apple. Google doesn't want to be just a me-too company, so they are looking for an advantage. And that is why they started their autonomous vehicle program: They want to define the future for vehicles.
A fully autonomous vehicle is a difficult prospect. It's easy to use robots when decision making is limited; but the driver of a car needs to be able to evaluate multiple information streams and make decisions quickly, especially in an emergency situation. So certainly, Google would be interested in autonomous robots. They would be especially interested in autonomous robots like Big Dog, which can climb uneven and varying terrain, AND react to unexpected events, like a tremendous shove(very impressive). I would also expect Google to be interested in partnering with DARPA and companies like Lockheed, who are working to develop pilot-less fighter jets.
In other words, I think it's long term move that makes commercial sense. There's also the potential side benefit of unexpected synergies that can take off in a totally new direction.
Good point about code, JimRW. That's certainly part of how BD managed to get more animal-like movements in its bots. Google has shown it doesn't operate by its own motto in several different ways. That's one of the reasons it reminds me of Massive Dynamic. Some cynics would say that's why it adopted that motto in the first place.
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