Big Dog/Boston Dynamics
It’s finally happened. Google has acquired Boston Dynamics, teaming up with some of the greatest minds in advanced robotics and engineering, cementing the inevitable coming of a robot uprising.
You’ll know Boston Dynamics from their Big Dog, Little Dog, or WildCat quadrupeds, which can traverse awkward terrain with ease and move in an unsettlingly natural way, and you’ll know Google from, well, everything (and Google certainly knows all about you).
What you might not know is that Google is actually getting pretty serious about this robot stuff. Earlier this year the search giant hired Ray Kurzweil—futurist and artificial intelligence expert—to be their new head of engineering. All the while Andy Rubin, former Android CEO, has been quietly buying out other robotics companies for Google in the background, with the New York Times unearthing seven in total:
Among the companies are Schaft, a small team of Japanese roboticists who recently left Tokyo University to develop a humanoid robot, and Industrial Perception, a start-up here that has developed computer vision systems and robot arms for loading and unloading trucks. Also acquired were Meka and Redwood Robotics, makers of humanoid robots and robot arms in San Francisco, and Bot & Dolly, a maker of robotic camera systems that were recently used to create special effects in the movie Gravity. A related firm, Autofuss, which focuses on advertising and design, and Holomni, a small design firm that makes high-tech wheels, were acquired as well.
Unsurprisingly, Rubin has been named to manage the Boston Dynamics acquisition. The marriage of one of the most influential tech companies in the world with an innovative and remarkable engineering company is a big deal. With a billion dollar institution behind them, Boston Dynamics are sure to accelerate their output, and they’ve done a damn good job on their own so far. What’s more, with the upcoming DARPA Challenge, which sees NASA’s Valkyrie competing with what is now Google’s ATLAS, it’s safe to say we’re probably going to see something truly mind blowing very soon.
So what can we expect, exactly? If we piece together information about the companies that Google have acquired (easier said than done, as they’ve all shut down their websites since the buyouts), we can compose our own Frankenstein’s robot-monster of the future.
Schaft specialises in extra-strong robot limbs; Perception will provide enhanced computer vision; Meka, somewhat more obscurely, boasts of its ability to produce “human-centred hyper-agility robots” (gulp); and Holomni is all about omni-directional high-tech wheels. Attach all of this to ATLAS—the worryingly T-800 terminator-looking bipedal robot—with Google’s coding prowess, which has already taken our breath away with self-driving cars, and it’s not much of a leap to suggest we’re getting closer to the first super-strong, agile, perceptive, and autonomous cyborg … with some rad wheels.
Clearly 2014 will be a fascinating year for robotics now that Google appears to be encouraging even greater innovation. If we consider the company's search engine roots, Google’s recent push for less specific input from users while providing an always-on and, crucially, always-relevant passive search functionality (a la Google Now/Google Glass), it’s obvious that this form of intelligent software assistance would function particularly well if installed in an appropriate hardware counterpart (hello ATLAS).
This is however a company that frequently flirts with ideas of the apparent approaching Singularity, with people like Brad Templeton, Chair of Computing and Networks at Singularity University, performing an advisory role for the tech giant, so let’s just hope we’re not witnessing the beginnings of Google’s Skynet.