Google Buys Boston Dynamics: Is That a Good Thing?

Ann R. Thryft

January 22, 2014

3 Min Read
Google Buys Boston Dynamics: Is That a Good Thing?

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.

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.

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About the Author(s)

Ann R. Thryft

Ann R. Thryft has written about manufacturing- and electronics-related technologies for Design News, EE Times, Test & Measurement World, EDN, RTC Magazine, COTS Journal, Nikkei Electronics Asia, Computer Design, and Electronic Buyers' News (EBN). She's introduced readers to several emerging trends: industrial cybersecurity for operational technology, industrial-strength metals 3D printing, RFID, software-defined radio, early mobile phone architectures, open network server and switch/router architectures, and set-top box system design. At EBN Ann won two independently judged Editorial Excellence awards for Best Technology Feature. She holds a BA in Cultural Anthropology from Stanford University and a Certified Business Communicator certificate from the Business Marketing Association (formerly B/PAA).

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