Last week, Google announced that it will be expanding its menagerie of robots, thanks to a recent acquisition. The announcement came on Dec. 13th, when the tech giant confirmed that it had bought out the engineering company known as Boston Dynamics. This company, which has had several lucrative contracts with DARPA and the Pentagon, has been making the headlines in the past few years, thanks to its advanced robot designs.
Based in Waltham, Massachusetts, Boston Dynamics has gained an international reputation for machines that walk with an uncanny sense of balance, can navigate tough terrain on four feet, and even run faster than the fastest humans. The names BigDog, Cheetah, WildCat, Atlas and the Legged Squad Support System (LS3), have all become synonymous with the next generation of robotics, an era when machines can handle tasks too dangerous or too dirty for most humans to do.
More impressive is the fact that this is the eight robot company that Google has acquired in the past six months. Thus far, the company has been tight-lipped about what it intends to do with this expanding robot-making arsenal. But Boston Dynamics and its machines bring significant cachet to Google’s robotic efforts, which are being led by Andy Rubin, the Google executive who spearheaded the development of Android.
The deal is also the clearest indication yet that Google is intent on building a new class of autonomous systems that might do anything from warehouse work to package delivery and even elder care. And considering the many areas of scientific and technological advancement Google is involved in – everything from AI and IT to smartphones and space travel – it is not surprising to see them branching out in this way.
Boston Dynamics was founded in 1992 by Marc Raibert, a former professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And while it has not sold robots commercially, it has pushed the limits of mobile and off-road robotics technology thanks to its ongoing relationship and funding from DARPA. Early on, the company also did consulting work for Sony on consumer robots like the Aibo robotic dog.
Speaking on the subject of the recent acquisition, Raibert had nothing but nice things to say about Google and the man leading the charge:
I am excited by Andy and Google’s ability to think very, very big, with the resources to make it happen.
Videos uploaded to Youtube featuring the robots of Boston Dynamics have been extremely popular in recent years. For example, the video of their four-legged, gas powered, Big Dog walker has been viewed 15 million times since it was posted on YouTube in 2008. In terms of comments, many people expressed dismay over how such robots could eventually become autonomous killing machines with the potential to murder us.
In response, Dr. Raibert has emphasized repeatedly that he does not consider his company to be a military contractor – it is merely trying to advance robotics technology. Google executives said the company would honor existing military contracts, but that it did not plan to move toward becoming a military contractor on its own. In many respects, this acquisition is likely just an attempt to acquire more talent and resources as part of a larger push.
Google’s other robotics acquisitions include companies in the United States and Japan that have pioneered a range of technologies including software for advanced robot arms, grasping technology and computer vision. Mr. Rubin has also said that he is interested in advancing sensor technology. Mr. Rubin has called his robotics effort a “moonshot,” but has declined to describe specific products that might come from the project.
He has, however, also said that he does not expect initial product development to go on for some time, indicating that Google commercial robots of some nature would not be available for several more years. Google declined to say how much it paid for its newest robotics acquisition and said that it did not plan to release financial information on any of the other companies it has recently bought.
Considering the growing power and influence Google is having over technological research – be it in computing, robotics, neural nets or space exploration – it might not be too soon to assume that they are destined to one day create the supercomputer that will try to kill us all. In short, Google will play Cyberdyne to Skynet and unleash the Terminators. Consider yourself warned, people! 😉