Why did Google buy all those robot companies?

boston-dynamics-darpa-cheetah-conceptLate last year the internet was lit up by the news that Google had bought eight companies that develop and manufacture robots.  A newsworthy development in itself, but what really got people talking was that Google did its buying very quietly, and didn’t explain what it wanted all that robot tech for.

The move into robotics wasn’t taken lightly.  The (undisclosed) cost of the shopping spree probably wasn’t enough to have a perceptible impact on Google’s torrential cash flow, but it is significant that one of their key talents runs the new department: Andy Rubin, who was responsible for establishing the Android mobile phone platform.

Commentators of a suspicious disposition focused on the fact that the last acquisition was Boston Dynamics, who make rather impressive machines designed for use by the US military.  (A couple of videos here and here.  The other companies, since you ask, are Industrial Perception, Redwood Robotics, Meka, Schaft, Holomni, Bot & Dolly and Autofuss.)  Google, which famously adopted “Don’t be evil” as a company motto, said they would fulfil Boston’s existing contracts and then stop doing military projects, but a flat denial like that won’t keep a good conspiracy theorist down.

Google’s ambitions are notoriously gargantuan.  It is seeking to revolutionise transportation with driverless cars, health with Calico, education with massive open online courses (MOOCs), computing with deep learning and quantum computing, reading with its digitised books project, internet connectivity with Google Fibre, and of course it is hoping that Google Glass will be to wearable computing what the iPhone was to smartphones.

I have no privileged insight into the thinking of Google’s founders, but my hunch is that they do these things for two reasons.  First, they reckon these revolutions will make somebody a lot of money, and it might as well be Google.  Second, and I suspect more important, they want to accelerate the arrival of an exciting future.  And the most exciting part of that future – if you are of an optimistic bent – is conscious machines.

I make no apologies for this blog banging on about strong artificial intelligence being potentially the most significant of all the astonishing changes that we will see during the 21st century.  I suspect that Larry Page and Sergei Brin would agree – after all, they hired Ray Kurzweil as a chief engineer, and he is the high priest of optimistic AI-watchers.

So here’s my answer to the question in the title.  Google wants to build an artificial brain, and its shiny new robots are, quite simply, the precursors to the distributed eyes, ears, arms and legs of that brain.

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4 thoughts on “Why did Google buy all those robot companies?

  1. I agree with your supposition. It’s just a shame that we wont be around to benefit 🙂 Question. Do you come at this problem by trying to make a human brain better…or do you throw that away and start with a clean piece of paper, learning from the brain conceptually but discarding it metaphysically?

  2. Both! (If I understand your question correctly). We should be pursuing cognitive enhancement processes and fighting the ageing process at the same time as developing strong AI and mind uploading techniques.

    That’s assuming Skynet doesn’t get us first. Just because you saw it in the movies doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.

  3. I meant to comment on this article a long, long time ago (a month at least, which is forever in picoseconds).

    You know, I’m not sure whether Google was motivated primarily by money (and not just money, but *a lot of money*) or by pure invention. The bald fact of it is “probably both”. The interesting thing though is that they figure robots and robotics are important enough to splurge on – hardware and software are different domains, and I doubt they’re near enough to merge the two quite yet.

    Of course, when they are, they’ll have a head start, so there’s *that* aspect of it, but still… different domains. Or do they have a new approach?

  4. I doubt they worry much about the software / hardware divide. I have no idea whether the Motorola acquisition was value-adding or not, but they have done OK with Android. They’re also straddling the divide with intelligent homes by buying Nest. Love ’em or hate ’em, it’s hard to deny they are an impressive management team.

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