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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