x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Google takes ‘moonshot’ with robots replacing humans

To gather the expertise and research it needs, Google has purchased eight companies that specialise in robotics this year.

Google added more pieces to its growing toolbox of robotics late last week with the purchase of Boston Dynamics. AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
Google added more pieces to its growing toolbox of robotics late last week with the purchase of Boston Dynamics. AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

Google may be gearing up to build robots that can outperform humans as the company expands into yet another technological frontier.

To gather the expertise and research it needs, Google has purchased eight companies that specialise in robotics this year. The acquisitions are being assembled into a new robotics division headed by Andy Rubin, who oversaw Google’s development of Android, now the world’s leading mobile operating system.

Google added more pieces to its growing toolbox of robotics late last week with the purchase of Boston Dynamics, a military contractor that has raised intrigue by releasing videos of its inventions in recent years. Those inventions include Big Dog, a four-legged robot that can climb muddy hills; Cheetah, a robot capable of galloping past Olympic sprinters at more than 46 kilometres an hour; and Sand Flea, which can leap on to tall buildings. Videos of several of the company’s robots have proved popular on YouTube.

Besides designing animal-like robots, Boston Dynamics has also been working on humanoids as part of a $10.8 million contract with the US government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa.

Founded in 1992 by the former Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Marc Raibert, Boston Dynamics says it is dedicating to “changing your idea of what robots can do”. The company works with the US army, navy, marine corps and Darpa, according to its website.

Google confirmed the Boston Dynamics purchase on Monday, but declined to reveal any other information, including the sale prices.

Mr Rubin, though, evidently views the company’s technology as a key to Google’s robotics plans.

“The future is looking awesome,” he wrote about the acquisition in a message posted on his Twitter account late Friday, after news of the deal leaked out.

Google revealed Mr Rubin is running its new robotics arm this month, shortly after the Amazon.com chief executive Jeff Bezos used a segment on 60 Minutes to announce that the internet’s biggest retailer is developing a fleet of automated drones called “quadricopters” to deliver merchandise to customers’ doorsteps.

That has led to speculation in the media that Google hopes to build robots that would automate manufacturing and distribution centre jobs currently handled by humans. Other possibilities include housekeeping robots or automated caretakers for the elderly.

Some of the other robotics companies acquired by Google have been dabbling in humanoids and other technology that could be used for loading and unloading delivery trucks. One company bought by Google, Bot & Dolly, makes a robotic camera system deployed in the making of the recent science fiction film Gravity. Other robotics companies sold to Google this year are Schaft, Industrial Perception, Meka, Redwood Robotics, Autofuss and Holomni.

Google said it considers its robotics division to be a “moonshot”. The Califiornia company applies that description to high-risk projects that have little to do with its main business of internet search and online advertising. These gambles also typically take years to pay off, to the chagrin of investors who prefer that the company curb its spending on far-flung ventures and focus on its main areas of expertise.

business@thenational.ae