Bingo ! Great news Google !
Finally, Google’ s big robot strategy is coming in to focus.
It is…wait for it…nothing.
On Thursday, St. Patrick’s Day, to be more precise, our collective robotic good luck ran out as Google, according to a Bloomberg report, puts its flagship robot maker, Boston Dynamics, up for sale.
The news comes just weeks after Google and Boston Dynamics accomplished a near unheard-of feat: they made us feel for a robot.
Jerk human beats up Boston Dynamics robot read the Mashable’s headline and it was not the exception, Most of the media covered the video showing a bipedal robot enduring a stress-test of sorts with a similar level of concern for the robot’s well-being. When I saw it, I thought, “Nice job Google, you made us empathize with a robot that would normally play a starring role in our nightmares.”
Now, I realize that that remarkable video was likely an unsanctioned hail-Mary pass by the Boston Dynamics team: something to dazzle the public and remind Google why they bought it in the first place.
Alphabet was clearly unmoved. Alphabet is Google’s parent company and the home of Google X, which is where, ostensibly, experimental pursuits like robotics are housed.
The Bloomberg report claims that the company wanted to distance itself from the demonstration.
That’s probably true. Google has a terrible track record when it comes to robotics.
A few years ago, Google acquired almost a dozen robotic companies, including Boston Dynamics, which was already well known among robot enthusiasts and the mainstream media for a series of creepy and fascinating robot experiments featuring fast-running cheetah robot, lumbering Big Dog robots and walking androids.
Prior to Google buying the company, Boston Dynamics collected funding from DARPA and mostly focused on robots that might assist the military in the field.
Every time Google bought a robot company, it fell silent. Even Boston Dynamics stopped putting out videos — for a while. Andy Rubin ran the robot team at Google, but he never articulated his grand vision and ultimately walked away. Things only got worse after that.
“Google bought nine robot companies and shut them down,” said iRobot CEO Colin Angle when I spoke to him earlier this week about Google/Alphabet’s approach to the robot business.
For a time, iRobot was a semi-competitor to Boston Dynamics in that, it too was building military and law enforcement robots. The big difference was that while Google’s robot corral was mostly populated by experiments. iRobot had sold thousands of robots to police departments and the military. The company recently shed its military arm.
I mentioned to Angle that, for years, I’d been trying to get Google to lay out its robotics strategy. They never made Rubin available and once he left, it wasn’t clear who had oversight for the company’s robotic efforts.
It wasn’t that Google’s robots weren’t visible, Boston Dynamics Atlas humanoid robots accounted for eight of the robot contestants at last summer’s DARPA Robotics Challenge. Perhaps if one of them had won, Google might have considered keeping them.
From my perspective, Google’s robotic experiments were going well. Boston Dynamics had certainly made some impressive progress in the last few years. I was actually beginning to believe that the timeline of a C3PO-like companion in the home was not another 35-or-so years away.
Angle, though, was less impressed and warned me that much of what I was seeing from Boston Dynamics, especially at the DARPA challenge, equated to a sort of tinker-toy approach to robotics: Specify a task and then hand the inventor a box of parts that they can use to figure it out. It’s problem solving, not product-building.
After buying all those robot companies, Rubin and then Google clearly discovered something I’ve known about robot companies for decades. They love robotics and experimentation but most have little skill (and not much interest) in building consumer or even business solutions.
Perhaps trying to guide any of them to come up with scaled back, salable versions of their automatons became too much like trying to herd robotics cats. These engineers just wanted to build cool stuff.
Most believe that Google has redirected the remaining roboticists’ energies at cool projects within Google X. However, if you want to know what Google and Alphabet plan to do with robotics going forward, you need only look at Google’s self-driving cars. Google is obviously fully invested in that effort, most likely because they have a clear strategy and a product that, mostly, doesn’t terrify people.
There’s a larger message here. Alphabet is finally growing tired of experiments. They’re certainly done with cutting-edge androids. That’s a shame and Google’s lack of faith in gritty, pure-play robot ventures probably set back robotics development another decade.
Thanks for that, Google.