Late 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.