Robots are a bit creepy. It's part of their intrigue, perhaps.
The idea that humans could create something stronger and more
intelligent than us is equal parts fascinating and terrifying. As
with many technologies, most robotics research exists so we can
create something that betters our lives in some way.
No single technology company may know this better than
. The tech behemoth that organizes and delivers Internet content
to us through Web searches has purchased eight robotics companies
over the past two years.
Since the purchases, more information has surfaced of Google's
plans. It's a mix of practical and fantastical -- and whether all
of it comes to fruition or not, it's sure to change our
Atlas robot. Source: Boston Dynamics.
Google's robotic stockpile
The set of companies now under Google's whimsy encompasses Bot
& Dolly, Meka Robotics, Boston Dynamics, Holomni, Schaft,
Redwood Robotics, Industrial Perception, Autofuss, and an
artificial intelligence company called DeepMind. These names are
likely completely unrecognizable to most people, save for maybe
Schaft and Boston Dynamics.
Those two robot creators were the leading companies in the
challenge from the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects
Agency (DARPA) challenge to make a robot that can assist humans
in natural and man-made disasters
Google's acquisitions have given the company know-how in areas
such as algorithms for controlling robotic movement, systems for
controlling a robot's level of force, powerful hydraulic and
electric robotics, omnidirectional robotic wheels, and machine
All of that is great. But what does Google plan on doing with
Robotic automotive assembly line. Source:
Rethinking the assembly line, again
It seems that one of the first byproducts of Google's robotics
acquisitions will be more efficient manufacturing processes.
The Wall Street Journal
in February that Google was in contact with
Foxconn, which assembles
's iPhones and iPads, about using robots in the Taiwanese
company's plants. More specifically, the article mentioned Google
may be working on an operating system that robot makers would use
in much the same way that smartphone makers rely on Google's
There are potential upsides for Google in selling hardware or
software robotics to other companies. As The Verge recently
, the cost of automated labor compared to human labor fell 50%
from 1990 to 2012.
Foxconn has experienced the increase in human labor costs
itself and has been the center of more than a handful of
inquiries, problems, and potential riots involving its more than
1 million-strong workforce. That may be why Foxconn talked with
Google, and why it invested about $40 million in robotics for its
new manufacturing plant in Pennsylvania.
The impact, good or bad, on the labor force and America's
economy if robotics becomes prevalent in manufacturing is a
debate for a different article. It would be easy to see the
benefits and drawbacks for both sides.
Instead, we will examine what a robot-infested world might
look light after they've dominated manufacturing and moved to
more personal uses.
Bringing the bots home
As Extreme Tech cited earlier this month, "Google definitely got
into the robot business to corner the home robot market early,"
noting that Schaft's robot can easily handle domestic challenges
like stairs and ladders. It's a pretty bold statement, but there
are more than a few reasons why this is very plausible.
First, there's some simple math that points to a growing need
for robotic assistance in the near future. A recent
referenced Harvard University research that said between 2015 and
2025, the number of U.S. households headed by people aged 70 or
older will increase by 42%. The study noted that as we age,
Americans unsurprisingly want to remain in their own homes.
In Japan, there's an even greater need. The country's
population is aging faster than any other, and at the same time
Japan faces a
of people to take care of its elderly. By 2025 an estimated 33%
of Japan's population will be senior citizens, but there won't be
enough people to care for them.
As both the U.S. and Japan face growing needs for additional
assistance for the aging, the robotics industry is expected to
take over some of these tasks. Giraff Technologies CEO Stephen
Von Rump, whose company makes a telepresence robot for the
elderly that can monitor their activity, believes the market for
robots and other technologies for taking care of senior citizens
will by 2016 reach $17.4 billion in Europe and $19.4 billion in
While it's hard to predict demand for robotics, Allied Market
Research thinks the entire robotics market will be worth $41.17
billion by 2020. That suggests Google's robotic ambitions can
grow far beyond elderly care. And it's already well on its
Less than two years ago, Google hired the famous futurist,
innovator, and inventor Ray Kurzweil as its director of
engineering. His name may not be known in general circles, but
people like Bill Gates certainly know him. In the sleeve of
Kurzweil's 2005 book,
Singularity Is Near
, the Microsoft co-founder is quoted as sayingKurzweil is "the
best person I know at predicting the future of artificial
A profile in
that Kurzweil only has a one-line job description at Google: to
bring natural language understanding to Google.
Reporter Carole Cadwalladr wrote in the article that Google
one day will know the answer to your question before you ask it.
"It will have read every email you've ever written, every
document, every idle thought you've ever tapped into a
search-engine box. It will know you better than your intimate
partner does. Better, perhaps, than even yourself," he wrote.
IBM's Watson computer. Source:
That is certainly a bit unnerving. But the goal Kurzweil is
working toward is to make artificial intelligence systems
understand what humans say, and put it into context like other
humans do. Kurzweil said in the article that when
's Watson computer went on
, it won by reading all of Wikipedia to get some of the answers
it needed. But he plans to go even further by helping computers
understand books, articles, Web pages, and other materials as
they read them, just as a human would.
This goes beyond the scope of a Google premonition tool that
knows what you'll search for before you search for it. It's about
Google creating an artificial intelligence that can understand
complex language. For Kurzweil, it's about creating a computer
consciousness. In an
, he said, "And that doesn't just mean logical intelligence. It
means emotional intelligence, being funny, getting the joke,
being sexy, being loving, understanding human emotion. That's
actually the most complex thing we do. That is what separates
computers and humans today. I believe that gap will close by
Not everyone is as optimistic about artificial intelligence.
CEO and co-founder Elon Musk tweeted over the weekend:
Worth reading Superintelligence by Bostrom. We need to be
super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes.
- Elon Musk (@elonmusk)
August 3, 2014
With the help of Google's robotics and artificial intelligence
projects, more robots may soon be among us soon, manufacturing
most of our products, reminding us to take our medicine, and
possibly carrying on intelligent conversations with us. Just
don't be too vocal about your robotic apprehensions in the
comments -- they may be reading this one day.
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