Tech News: Google Seeking “Conscious Homes”

nest_therm1In Google’s drive for world supremacy, a good number of start-ups and developers have been bought up. Between their acquisition of eight robotics companies in the space of sixth months back in 2013 to their ongoing  buyout of anyone in the business of aerospace, voice and facial recognition, and artificial intelligence, Google seems determined to have a controlling interest in all fields of innovation.

And in what is their second-largest acquisition to date, Google announced earlier this month that they intend get in on the business of smart homes. The company in question is known as Nest Labs, a home automation company that was founded by former Apple engineers Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers in 2010 and is behind the creation of The Learning Thermostat and the Protect smoke and carbon monoxide detector.

nest-thermostatThe Learning Thermostat, the company’s flagship product, works by learning a home’s heating and cooling preferences over time, removing the need for manual adjustments or programming. Wi-Fi networking and a series of apps also let users control and monitor the unit Nest from afar, consistent with one of the biggest tenets of smart home technology, which is connectivity.

Similarly, the Nest Protect, a combination smoke and carbon monoxide detector, works by differentiating between burnt toast and real fires. Whenever it detects smoke, one alarm goes off, which can be quieted by simply waving your hand in front of it. But in a real fire, or where deadly carbon monoxide is detected, a much louder alarm sounds to alert its owners.

nest_smoke_detector_(1_of_9)_1_610x407In addition, the device sends a daily battery status report to the Nest mobile app, which is the same one that controls the thermostats, and is capable of connecting with other units in the home. And, since Nest is building a platform for all its devices, if a Nest thermostat is installed in the same home, the Protect and automatically shut it down in the event that carbon monoxide is detected.

According to a statement released by co-f0under Tony Fadell, Nest will continue to be run in-house, but will be partnered with Google in their drive to create a conscious home. On his blog, Fadell explained his company’s decision to join forces with the tech giant:

Google will help us fully realize our vision of the conscious home and allow us to change the world faster than we ever could if we continued to go it alone. We’ve had great momentum, but this is a rocket ship. Google has the business resources, global scale, and platform reach to accelerate Nest growth across hardware, software, and services for the home globally.

smarthomeYes, and I’m guessing that the $3.2 billion price tag added a little push as well! Needless to say, some wondered why Apple didn’t try to snatch up this burgeoning company, seeing as how its being run by two of its former employees. But according to Fadell, Google founder Sergey Brin “instantly got what we were doing and so did the rest of the Google team” when they got a Nest demo at the 2011 TED conference.

In a press release, Google CEO Larry Page had this to say about bringing Nest into their fold:

They’re already delivering amazing products you can buy right now – thermostats that save energy and smoke/[carbon monoxide] alarms that can help keep your family safe. We are excited to bring great experiences to more homes in more countries and fulfill their dreams!

machine_learningBut according to some, this latest act by Google goes way beyond wanting to develop devices. Sara Watson at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society is one such person, who believes Google is now a company obsessed with viewing everyday activities as “information problems” to be solved by machine learning and algorithms.

Consider Google’s fleet of self-driving vehicles as an example, not to mention their many forays into smartphone and deep learning technology. The home is no different, and a Google-enabled smart home of the future, using a platform such as the Google Now app – which already gathers data on users’ travel habits – could adapt energy usage to your life in even more sophisticated ways.

Larry_PageSeen in these terms, Google’s long terms plans of being at the forefront of the new technological paradigm  – where smart technology knows and anticipates and everything is at our fingertips – certainly becomes more clear. I imagine that their next goal will be to facilitate the creation of household AIs, machine minds that monitor everything within our household, provide maintenance, and ensure energy efficiency.

However, another theory has it that this is in keeping with Google’s push into robotics, led by the former head of Android, Andy Rubin. According to Alexis C. Madrigal of the Atlantic, Nest always thought of itself as a robotics company, as evidence by the fact that their VP of technology is none other than Yoky Matsuoka – a roboticist and artificial intelligence expert from the University of Washington.

yokymatsuoka1During an interview with Madrigal back in 2012, she explained why this was. Apparently, Matsuoka saw Nest as being positioned right in a place where it could help machine and human intelligence work together:

The intersection of neuroscience and robotics is about how the human brain learns to do things and how machine learning comes in to augment that.

In short, Nest is a cryptorobotics company that deals in sensing, automation, and control. It may not make a personable, humanoid robot, but it is producing machine intelligences that can do things in the physical world. Seen in this respect, the acquisition was not so much part of Google’s drive to possess all our personal information, but a mere step along the way towards the creation of a working artificial intelligence.

It’s a Brave New World, and it seems that people like Musk, Page, and a slew of futurists that are determined to make it happen, are at the center of it.

Sources: cnet.news.com, (2), newscientist.com, nest.com, theatlantic.com

Judgement Day Update: Geminoid Robotic Clones

geminoidWe all know it’s coming: the day when machines would be indistinguishable from human beings. And with a robot that is capable of imitating human body language and facial expressions, it seems we are that much closer to realizing it. It’s known as the Geminoid HI-2, a robotic clone of its maker, famed Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro.

Ishiguro unveiled his latest creation at this year’s Global Future 2045 conference, an annual get-together for all sorts of cybernetics enthusiasts, life extension researchers, and singularity proponents. As one of the world’s top experts on human-mimicking robots, Ishiguro wants his creations to be as close to human as possible.

avatar_imageAlas, this has been difficult, since human beings tend to fidget and experience involuntary tics and movements. But that’s precisely what his latest bot excels at. Though it still requires a remote controller, the Ishiguro clone has all his idiosyncrasies hard-wired into his frame, and can even give you dirty looks.

geminoidfThis is not the first robot Ishiguro has built, as his female androids Repliee Q1Expo and Geminoid F will attest. But above all, Ishiguro loves to make robotic versions of himself, since one of his chief aims with robotics is to make human proxies. As he said during his talk, “Thanks to my android, when I have two meetings I can be in two places simultaneously.” I honestly think he was only half-joking!

During the presentation, Ishiguro’s robotic clone was on stage with him, where it realistically fidgeted as he pontificated and joked with the audience. The Geminoid was controlled from off-stage, where an unseen technician guided it, and fidgeted, yawned, and made annoyed facial expressions. At the end of the talk, Ishiguro’s clone suddenly jumped to life and told a joke that startled the crowd.

geminoid_uncanny_valleyIn Ishiguro’s eyes, robotic clones can outperform humans at basic human behaviors thanks to modern engineering. And though they are not yet to the point where the term “android” can be applied, he believes it is only a matter of time before they can rival and surpass the real thing. Roboticists and futurists refer to this as the “uncanny valley” – that strange, off-putting feeling people get when robots begin to increasingly resemble humans. If said valley was a physical place, I think we can all agree that Ishiguro would be its damn mayor!

And judging by these latest creations, the time when robots are indistinguishable from humans may be coming sooner than we think. As you can see from the photos, there seems to be very little difference in appearance between his robots and their human counterparts. And those who viewed them live have attested to them being surprisingly life-like. And once they are able to control themselves and have an artificial neural net that can rival a human one in terms of complexity, we can expect them to mimic many of our other idiosyncrasies as well.

As usual, there are those who will respond to this news with anticipation and those who respond with trepidation. Where do you fall? Maybe these videos from the conference of Ishiguro’s inventions in action will help you make up your mind:

Ishiguro Clone:


Geminoid F:

Sources: fastcoexist.com, geminoid.jp