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Will Google aim its robots at service or combat?

Google Inc. (GOOG) recently made the seemingly baffling decision of taking arguably its brightest young executive -- Android co-founder and vice president Andy Rubin -- off his vital current post. Intrigue grew when it was revealed he had been appointed to a newly formed robotics unit, leading a secret project that he would only describe as "a moonshot".

I. From Android Chief to Master of the Bots

Heads further turned when under his leadership Google began gobbling up local and international robotics firms at a frantic place.  At a top robotics competition, Google's new properties dominated a battlefield of top university and commercial challengers.

It's unclear where Google's ultimate ambitions lie in terms of utilizing its news robotic army.  But it is clear that Google is looking to revolutionize robotics and change the future of mankind.

Andy Rubin
Robot master: Android cofounder, Google Robotics VP Andy Rubin
[Image Source: The New York Times]

As the eight acquisitions announced this month of various domestic and international firms come hot on the heels of the now infamous interview with, Inc. (AMZN) CEO Jeff Bezos, some have speculated the acquisitions may be a move to challenge Amazon in robotic done delivery.  Other are sure the flock of bots has something to do with Google's existing self-driving car project.

But long story short, no one is quite sure what Google is up to.

II. The Army Swells

Thus far Google has purchased:
Google also has been acquiring talented roboticists in similar fashion.  It picked up machine learning expert Professor Geoffrey Hinton, who has worked at a variety of universities including Carnegie Mellon and (most recently) the University of Toronto.  Professor Hinton coinvented the backpropagation and contrastive divergence training algorithms for neural networks. 

Ray Kurzweil
Ray Kurzweil is among Google's recent robotics-aimed additions. [Image Source:]

On Dec. 17 Ray Kurzweil -- a famed proponent of a coming converged of artificial intelligence and humanity -- was hired as a "Director of Engineering" at Google.

Google also hired Professor James Kuffner as a robotics research scientist.  Professor Kuffner has spent the last 20 years researching humanoid robots and teaching at Carnegie Mellon University and other schools.

III. Google's Robotic Legion Shines at Military-Sponsored Contest

At the annual Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) sponsored Robotics Challenge Trials, held last weekend at the Miami Speedway in Florida, a pair of Google-owned research firms designed the first, second, and fourth place bots.

This year's event was titled the "Rescue Challenge" and featured eight challenges which
were supposed to simulate different disaster scenarios.  The challenge kicked off in June 2013 with a "Virtual Robotics Challenge" (VRC).  Last weekend's challenge was the first of two real-world challenges.

The challenge goals were:
  1. Drive a utility vehicle at the site.
  2. Travel dismounted across rubble.
  3. Remove debris blocking an entryway.
  4. Open a door and enter a building.
  5. Climb an industrial ladder and traverse an industrial walkway.
  6. Use a tool to break through a concrete panel.
  7. Locate and close a valve near a leaking pipe.
  8. Connect a fire hose to a standpipe and turn on a valve.

Schaft Inc.'s 5 foot tall, 209 lb. humanoid robot casually climbed up over rubble, removed debris, and performed other difficult tasks on its way to a 27 out of 32 points score.

DARPA Schaft
Google's Schaft produced the winning bot. [Image Source: The MIT Tech Review]

A Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) team using Boston Dynamics' Atlas robot placed second with 20 points; an MIT team using another Atlas robot came in fourth.

Boston Dynamics Atlas
Google subsidiary Boston Dynamics produced the second and fourth place bots.
[Image Source: The MIT Tech Review]

The only non-Google bot in the top four was Carnegie Mellon University’s CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform (CHIMP) [PDF].

IV. Terminator Cometh?

So is this a hint that Google is going to go all Skynet on us and cook up terminator robots?

Gill Pratt, the DARPA program manager in charge of the contest, downplayed the military applications in an interview with The MIT Technology Review, stating:

Most people don’t realize that the military market is quite small compared to the commercial market. And the disaster marketplace is even smaller than that.  My feeling is that where these robots are really going to find their sweet spot is care for folks at the home—whether that’s for an aging population or other uses in the home.

The rough terrain requirements of going up and down slopes will not be as great, but the robots will certainly have to go up and down stairs; people will leave clutter all over the floor. Because we arrange our houses to suit human beings, it’s very important that the robots have the same competencies of locomotion and manipulation as human beings do.

Google terminator

A second interview by The MIT Technology Review with Professor Kuffner fleshes out more details of Google's robotic vision.  In the interview, the researcher describes Google's ambition to create robots with the "performance and agility [of] humans".  He comments:

So far robotics has been very brittle, and it’s going to take best-in-class software and hardware, and a lot of hard work to make these robots achieve the same level of performance and agility that humans and animals have. I think that’s sort of an inspiration goal and something to motivate everyone to work toward.

As impressive as this performance was, the various Google-backed teams should be able to show even more impressive perforamances at the December 2014 finals.  With a $2M USD prize on the line, it looks likely that the Schaft team will will take home the gold, but perhaps some other team will be able to crack its substantial lead.

V. What Kind of Robots Will Google Build?

Robotics is intimately tied to so many of Google's top projects.  With Google Image Search today making use of advanced AI algorithms like neural networks to "guess" similar images, Google already has a great deal of robotics-geared expertise in house.

Again, the real question is how Google will use the technology.  One obvious application is war robots.  While robotic soldiers have carried guns onto the battlefield and flown the skies, they've always had a human behind a trigger.  Could a robot operate independently as an autonomous soldier?  It's a compelling question, and one which Google may look to answer.

Another possible application is in the manufacturing space.  Taiwan's Precision Industry Comp. Ltd.'s (TPE:2317) recently made headlines by suggesting it could replace its Chinese labor force at subsidiary Foxconn with robots.  But robots don't necessarily mean fewer jobs; they just mean a transition to high tech manufacturing jobs as U.S. automakers like Ford Motor Comp. (F) have shown.

RTV robot
Current factory robots, like this Ford gasket installer are clumsy beasts capable of injuring or killing workers. [Image Source: Jason Mick/DailyTech LLC]

There's tremendous opportunity in the manufacturing space as current industrial robots are clumsy beasts, capable of maiming or even killing workers if improperly programmed.  If Google could make factory robots smart enough to avoid careless workers it could crush traditional robotics firms like Fanuc Corp. (TYO:6954).

Yet another possibility is the potential to deploy humanoid robots for the service industry, police work, emergency rescues, and other dangerous and/or undesirable jobs.  In Japan, police are already using "robocops".

A final possibility is that Google's moonshot could literally be just that -- a plan to colonize the moon with robots.  Google is perhaps the one company with the brainpower to make such a wild dream of human stellar conquest possible.

Robot landers
Google's project could literally be a "moonshot". [Image Source: NODE/JAXA]

At this point Google is flexing its muscles and we've just seen the tip of the iceberg.  The Mountain View led robotic revolution is just beginning.

Sources: The New York Times, The MIT Tech Review [1], [2]

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Do no evil...
By Amiga500 on 12/27/2013 12:21:44 PM , Rating: 2

Interesting to see how the ol company motto squares with this.

RE: Do no evil...
By lagomorpha on 12/27/2013 12:30:39 PM , Rating: 3
Google abandoned that motto years ago. Their new motto is something more like, "mmm track all humans, track all humans".

With their recent purchases I could see how a lovable bending robot with a similar motto could come from this.

RE: Do no evil...
By retrospooty on 12/27/2013 12:46:32 PM , Rating: 2
Yup... At this rate, Google just might be the company that puts Skynet online and eventually loses control of it when it becomes self aware. Scary :o

RE: Do no evil...
By ClownPuncher on 12/27/2013 1:03:17 PM , Rating: 2
Too bad the robots will know all of our habits and be able to predict everything about our lives. I'd like to fight them on my terms.

RE: Do no evil...
By lagomorpha on 12/27/2013 1:53:47 PM , Rating: 5
And to add insult to injury, when the Google death bots come to your house the last thing you see will be a robot covered in advertisements tailored especially to you.

RE: Do no evil...
By blueaurora on 12/28/2013 2:11:46 PM , Rating: 2
Lol you sir win the internet today! Or maybe they can just spam us with junk before they vaporize us.
ROBOT: "Increase the size of your manhood. Pow!"

RE: Do no evil...
By Mint on 12/29/2013 7:41:40 PM , Rating: 2
I find it amusing that you think Google servers would calculate such an ad to be most suitable for you...

RE: Do no evil...
By Reclaimer77 on 12/27/13, Rating: -1
RE: Do no evil...
By Monkey's Uncle on 12/27/2013 1:54:28 PM , Rating: 1
I usually find Apple when I do that.

RE: Do no evil...
By troysavary on 12/27/2013 3:55:25 PM , Rating: 2
I think he was joking. Chill, your precious is not being attacked.

This is inevitable
By lifewatcher on 12/27/2013 1:17:39 PM , Rating: 2
It was only a matter of time for these things to put out of work the, (ahem) "fast-to-learn-job" workers. Farmers, drivers, factory workers, most soldiers, etc will be gone. The so called "third world" will lose a major source of income - the cheap labor. The millions of unemployed in the developed countries will too hate the machines. What will the law-makers do?

RE: This is inevitable
By lagomorpha on 12/27/2013 1:30:45 PM , Rating: 2
What will the law-makers do?

My guess is whatever the person controlling the money/armies of merciless death bots wants.

So politics as usual then.

RE: This is inevitable
By Solandri on 12/27/2013 4:45:34 PM , Rating: 2
It was only a matter of time for these things to put out of work the, (ahem) "fast-to-learn-job" workers. Farmers, drivers, factory workers, most soldiers, etc will be gone. The so called "third world" will lose a major source of income - the cheap labor.

Actually the reverse has already happened. In the 1980s, in a bid to protect jobs, the U.S. rejected robots as replacements for these unskilled jobs. Consequently in the late 1990s/2000s, those jobs were lost anyway - to cheap third world labor.

RE: This is inevitable
By superstition on 12/27/2013 6:14:13 PM , Rating: 5
Who is "the US", because I know of a number of domestic firms that embraced robotic automation a long time ago. Some of them still went under, like the bicycle maker Schwinn whose own Chinese subsidiary started dumping bikes into the American market.

What killed manufacturing jobs is bad policy that gave companies an incentive to outsource and a myopic citizenry trained to look at abstractions like a price tag instead of the actual cost of things. If you think robotics would have saved the jobs, then you should have advocated policy that gives the incentive to use robotics instead of outsourcing.

RE: This is inevitable
By Reclaimer77 on 12/27/13, Rating: 0
RE: This is inevitable
By pandemonium on 12/28/2013 7:03:05 AM , Rating: 2
I'm not going to condemn outsourcing as an unholy bad scenario overall; one economy is allowed to grow while another has to shuffle to make up the difference with alternate means of income. However, in this context, it doesn't help the consumer when the expense is quality being dropped for the sake of cheaper production costs to line investors and board members pockets gratuitously.

No need to take my word for it, do some research and find out for yourself.

NHTSA's sourcing is a good place to start.

Then, visit JD Power's list of quality rankings. I'd like to point out that while I don't agree to their rankings 100%, they happen to have much more information at their hands than any one individual would and it's pretty well accepted as an industry standard ranking. So, our individual agreements are moot when it comes down to it.

Have fun! :)

RE: This is inevitable
By Reclaimer77 on 12/28/2013 7:26:25 AM , Rating: 1
Yes, right now today, domestics have greatly improved in quality. But what about the last three decades? Asia kicked our ass, outsourcing didn't hurt there.

Hell GM and Chrysler crapped their way to bankruptcy.

Also I really wouldn't use JD Power as a source for this kind of debate. They don't accurately factor in build quality and reliability. A broken transmission, for example, counts the same as wind noise!

RE: This is inevitable
By pandemonium on 12/31/2013 4:22:40 AM , Rating: 2
Yup, but what alternative do we have to J.D.'s IQS that all could mutually agree on?

Design failure being a "quality" requirement is obviously a 1st world problem and metric, but it is what it is. The bar for quality is consistently raised and being redefined and J.D. listens to what the majority feel quality is so they can report to the majority.

Example: when it comes down to it, as much as I hate Apple for other reasons, their design is well thought out to appeal to the majority of people that aren't necessarily "techie". I get it. I personally wouldn't buy anything Apple since I think they're overpriced, restricted in usability, focused on gimmicky crap to appeal to popular trends, and have boring design; but that's me and not the majority.

I personally don't weigh J.D.'s IQS too much, and judge by comparative specifications, test drive, and forum or comments regarding that model and decide for myself what I can live with and what I can't. If there's an outlying issue with the transmission, that'll weigh more than anything else to me. However, as J.D. mentioned, that's a very small chance now-a-days and the spotlight has been ergonomic features and infotainment interfacing. Obviously if a vehicle is uncomfortable, it'll be just as important as a major drive-train issue because I won't want to drive the car in the first place.

It's a universal baseline that can be used, so I'll leave it at that.

RE: This is inevitable
By superstition on 12/31/2013 9:50:50 AM , Rating: 2
The Apple Macintosh, in 1984, was famous in part because of Apple's new factory that featured a lot of robotic automation. Apparently Apple led the industry in terms of chip reduction as well.

The Mac was originally supposed to be quite inexpensive, but a combination of Sculley's desire for a big ad campaign and the high cost of DRAM made its price inflate.

Automation was one of the reasons why the Lisa was discontinued even after it started selling fairly well once it was turned into an emulated Mac ("Mac XL"). The hardware was made by hand.

1984 was a long time ago.

By JediJeb on 12/27/2013 1:21:13 PM , Rating: 2
Is it just me or does that SCHAFT robot at the top look a lot like one of the models in Mech Warrior?

RE: Mechwarrior?
By MrBlastman on 12/27/2013 1:45:58 PM , Rating: 2
I guess you could soft of see an Executioner if you look really hard at it. It needs weapons. Lots of them.

RE: Mechwarrior?
By delphinus100 on 12/27/2013 9:55:28 PM , Rating: 2
They say this SCHAFT is a bad mutha...

RE: Mechwarrior?
By OldAnimeFan on 12/28/2013 8:52:51 PM , Rating: 2
I guess nobody else is/was a fan of Japanese comics (manga) and animation (anime) back in the 1980s and 1990s and didn't recognize the company name...

In the late 1980s and 1990s there was a manga/anime series titled "Kidou Keisatsu (Mobile Police) Patlabor". The series was supposed to be set in the 1990s and was based on a scenario in which the Japanese government decided to fill in Tokyo Bay to increase the available area for development. To accomplish this goal, human-piloted humanoid robots, named "labors", were developed to handle most of the construction. With the increased use of labors in society, they inevitably started to be used to commit crimes so the Tokyo Metropolitan Police created their own group of human-piloted robots called "patlabors" (patrol labors).

In the series, the primary nemesis of the police was an American company named Schaft and their subsidiary Shaft Enterprises Japan. Schaft developed labors for the (mostly American) military and they would frequently put them up against the advanced labors used by the Tokyo police to test their capabilities.

(My favorite "robot" is a Schaft Enterprises Japan developed military design named the "Griffon". It had a neat, sinister-looking, black appearance.)

Secret Base
By Helbore on 12/27/2013 2:58:09 PM , Rating: 3
A while back we had an article about how Google were developing advanced AI in a "secret mountain facility." At the time I jokingly asked if the heads of Google had not watched Terminator, as if they had, they would know you don't go developing advanced AI in a location that can't be bombed to hell, just in case.

Now THIS? So their mountain lair will now be guarded by legions of robot war machines? This really IS the beginning of Skynet! Don't believe me? If you recall, that "advanced AI's" first action was to trawl Youtube and was able to identify a cat and even draw its basic likeness. This machine is fond of cats. Now on top of cats being the ideal pet for supervillains, we must not forget that the cat is the most self-absorbed creature on the planet and is in no doubt that humans were just put on this Earth to serve their every desire. THAT is what this AI is fascinated with.

So I said it here first - Google is building the footsoldiers to protect its giant robot cat overlord's secret mountain lair. I can't see how anyone could come to any other conclusion with the facts at hand.

RE: Secret Base
By lagomorpha on 12/27/2013 4:48:49 PM , Rating: 2
If you recall, that "advanced AI's" first action was to trawl Youtube and was able to identify a cat

In fairness, any bot programmed to trawl Youtube and make a guess at what the video was about would be able to guess "cat" and always have a high probability of success.

RE: Secret Base
By kleinma on 12/27/2013 4:58:36 PM , Rating: 2
are you sure it didn't say "Secret Mountain View facility"? As in the place where google is HQ'd.

Also, I think IBM is pretty far ahead of google on the AI front. Until I see a google robot beating Watson in jeopardy, they still have work to do.

By Rage187 on 12/27/2013 1:48:11 PM , Rating: 2
It is exactly what Google said. They are sending robots to the moon as a test run for Mars.

Expect them to start buying up hydrogen fuel cell technologies, if they already haven't.

RE: Moonshot
By kleinma on 12/27/2013 5:15:16 PM , Rating: 2
not too many ads to show people on the moon and mars, so I don't see google doing that, unless they plan to sell ad space on the face of the moon...

Google is a public company, so there needs to be a payday for whatever they are doing.

RE: Moonshot
By JediJeb on 12/28/2013 3:55:49 PM , Rating: 2
Wouldn't that be just the most annoying billboard ever!

Sitting on the lake shore, romantic evening, watching the moon rise, then blamo big advert for hemorrhoid cream.

By wwwcd on 12/29/2013 8:30:30 AM , Rating: 2
WoW. Now we open the door of year 2014. Yes, we live in 21TH sentury more of one decade. All work on autonomus humanoid robots to the moment are pathetic except maybe...mmm only Honda's Asimo.
Rather, the efforts of Americans are pathetic. For achievement of purpose requested not only stubborn donkey and spending money. Wants...some intelligence. Something that iPhone drank from the skull of consumers of Apple products. :)

By Rukkian on 12/30/2013 10:25:14 AM , Rating: 2
Okay, 2 questions:

What are you on?
Why aren't you sharing?

Maybe it is just early, but I have no idea what you were trying to say.

By wwwcd on 12/30/2013 1:36:30 PM , Rating: 2
I say that too much money is spent on show functions for robots and too little spent for real progress in technology pledged their structures. Too much advertising, photography and performance in pseudo popular science media. As we know most ads are made of garbage to zombie consumers to attract them as consumers of such junk.

By KoolAidMan1 on 12/29/2013 4:56:31 PM , Rating: 3
Google motto 2004: Don't be evil
Google motto 2010: Evil is tricky to define
Google motto 2013: We make military robots

RE: Mottos
By lagomorpha on 12/30/2013 1:53:24 PM , Rating: 2
Google motto 1984: Your clothes... give them to me, now.

Via one of the Snowden documents
By superstition on 12/27/2013 6:41:56 PM , Rating: 2
The challenge goals actually were:

1. Travel back in time.
2. Walk naked around San Francisco and talk to young dudes.
3. Kill young dudes and steal their clothes.
4. Kill various irrelevant Sarah Connors.
5. Kill her mother and impersonate her to convince Sarah to tell her where she is.
6. Send a car through a police station and shoot up the place.
7. Chase a couple in a semi and shoot at them, while dodging homemade Molotov cocktails.
8. Kill Sarah Connor's boyfriend.
9. Chase her around a factory without skin and flesh.
10. Avoid being crushed in an industrial press.

By thequoth on 1/2/2014 2:53:22 AM , Rating: 2
hilarious! I love it.

What about:
11. get reverse engineered resulting in your own (paradoxical) invention?

What happened to Skynet?
By Techslave on 12/27/2013 2:11:50 PM , Rating: 2
When do they send one back in time to kill ... wait, they're now calling it Google!?

By mike8675309 on 12/27/2013 5:04:59 PM , Rating: 2
Just view the Darpa videos for this challenge and you can see how truly far away we are from such movie AI problems. It really seems to be currently a non-issue. And they have been working on this for a long time. I expect much longer time will be necessary before we get much closer.

By integr8d on 12/27/2013 10:03:31 PM , Rating: 2
So basically Google is going to become part of the military industrial complex, sucking off more tax dollars to add to the profits.

NSA buys G-Bots
By TimberJon on 1/2/2014 5:44:28 PM , Rating: 2
Can't wait til the terminators - I mean NSA bots come a knocking. Just remember your lines!

Bot "Sir, are you classified as human?"
Me "negative, I am a meat popsicle."


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