Google has just announced that it bought Boston Dynamics, best known around here for building bulletproof robot horses with hands for faces and the Terminators that will be astride them as we are driven from our homes into the woods. And it caps off a year of Google on a robot buying spree… but why?
In the last year, Google has bought up Meka Robotics and Redwood Robotics, two companies closely tied together that build robotic arms as well as bipedal robots; Schaft, Inc., a company working on building a Terminator as well; Bot & Dolly, which builds “motion control” cameras for film, and whose work you saw in Gravity; Holumni, which builds robotic wheels; and Industrial Perception, a company that specializes in machine vision, i.e. robot eyes.
All of this was, of course, folded into Google X, Google’s “secret” lab that works on projects like Google Glass and the famous Google self-driving car. Trying to guess what Google is up to, long-term, can be something of a fool’s errand; when you dig into the company’s inner workings and thought processes, it’s pretty damn weird. But there is an ongoing theme here: bipedal, humanoid robots. But why?
Leaving aside for a minute that Google’s higher-ups probably just really like robots, there is one thing we know Google’s not doing: Military work. Once Boston Dynamics’ military contracts are up, Google won’t be seeking more of them. That’s interesting in its own way; Boston Dynamics’ work has largely been military focused, and that essentially means Google will be moving the company away from its bread and butter. Instead, it seems Google wants robots to expand its network, or build them.
Google has a lot of projects, from WiFi blimps to kites that generate power, that having a robot handy would be useful. Google has been investing a lot of money in bringing items like Internet connectivity and electrical power into places that either lack First World infrastructure, or are just inhospitable in the first place.
Paying a human to live in the middle of nowhere, especially a place that’s a miserable hellhole, is a difficult job to fill. Paying a human to come to a suburban office park and control a robot thousands of miles away walking through a volcano is, admit it, a job you’d probably punt a toddler for a shot at. Who wouldn’t? And this isn’t even getting into the value of connecting, say, a person unable to walk or someone suffering from ALS to an android.
While you shouldn’t expect Googlebots this Christmas, the company seems to really want to have real, humanoid robots on the ground sooner rather than later. And they want to keep the military the hell away from them, which if you’re afraid of Terminators is a plus. It’s easy to forget that the future is always arriving… and it’s clear Google wants to build a big piece of it.