Image via Wikimedia Commons.
This past Saturday, The New York Times reported that Google had purchased robotics maker Boston Dynamics. The tech giant stated that it would honor Boston Dynamics’ military contracts, but had no plans to enter into the world of military contracting itself. But whether Google wants to admit it or not, it is now a defense contractor. At least until the Boston Dynamics contracts expire.
Boston Dynamics is widely known for its YouTube videos showing BigDog, a quadripedal robot, negotiating all sorts of rough terrain (and chucking cinder blocks), while its other robot, Cheetah, can be seen running at fast clips down a commercial parking lot. Boston Dynamics also created Petman, a bipedal robot used for testing chemical resistant clothing. These robots, and any others in development, are now Google’s. Andy Rubin, Android developer and head of Google’s robotics division, will oversee Boston Dynamics absorption into Google.
The deal is part of Google’s much larger move into robotics and artificial intelligence. To date, Google has acquired eight robotics companies in the last six months in an effort to revolutionize manufacturing and compete with Amazon in retail. Might future Google robots also help manufacture the company’s self-driving cars? It’s in the realm of possibility.
All of this is great for Google, though it might bring out the inner Luddite in people. They don’t want to be known as job killers. Technological skepticism aside, how do Boston Dynamics’ military and “disaster relief” robots fit into Google’s future manufacturing and retail plans?
It’s important to keep in mind that Google’s robotics division isn’t the company’s only far out, moonshot project. The tech giant also has plans to monetize immortality with Calico, and provide internet access to via wind and solar-powered balloons with Project Loon. In the immediate term, these projects are money holes. Some could turn a profit, others might never. But Google’s robotics efforts might very well afford the company a much faster return on investment.
Google plans to revolutionize manufacturing with robotics. At best, that is a few years away. Outside of manufacturing and medicine, the only place where robotics currently proliferate is in the military-industrial complex—drones, mechanized bomb squads, robotic patrol for military bases, and the like. The robotic defense market is booming, and it will only continue to grow in the coming years. Boston Dynamics is an established player in this market. To expect that Google wouldn’t want a piece of this pie after Boston Dynamics’ contracts expire is a bit naive.
As it stands, Boston Dynamics has six other robots outside of BigDog, Cheetah, and Petaman. One of these is the LS3, a “rough-terrain robot designed to go anywhere Marines and Soldiers go on foot, helping carry their load.” The Atlas robot was designed for the DARPA Robotics Challenge, but it could find use in military applications such as moving heavy equipment at bases. And then the US Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF) funded Boston Dynamic’s Sand Flea, an 11-pound robot that can jump 30-feet into the air. While Boston Dynamics doesn’t describe the smaller RHex and RiSe robots as defense projects, there is no reason that they couldn’t be used for military purposes.
Google clearly has its own futurist vision, even if it’s rather obscure at this point. Doubly so for Rubin’s robotics division. It might be that Google truly has no interest in defense contracting, but high-flying shareholders might disagree. While there is a great deal of money to be made with military contracts, there might be even more money in civilian robotics. Imagine successor robots to BigDog and Cheetah running down sidewalks and scaling mountains to bring Americans all sorts of goods.
Taking the long view of technological development, the Boston Dynamics deal could simply be common sense on Google’s part. Military technology eventually makes its way to the public (the internet, Tor, satellites, etc.), so the same should hold true for robots of the future. After entering the manufacturing and retail sectors, Google could possibly create various other robots such as toys or household servants. Its robotics division and investment capital could put it at the forefront of this technological evolution.
If Google decides to renew Boston Dynamics’ contracts, or sign up for others, the company’s considerable fortune would allow it to compete with Raytheon, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, and Boeing. But would future military contracts adversely affect Google’s user base? Could users migrate to greener pastures if they felt Google was getting too cozy with the government? In a post-NSA leaks world, Google, with its global internet dominance under threat, will have to tread carefully.
If Google is smart, they'll honor Boston Dynamics defense contracts, but steer clear of defense contracting and stick to what it does best: search, Android, mapping, YouTube, and its various other internet projects. If the robotics division is supposed to be churning out commercial products in just a few years, we can only hope they're of a commercial, non-military nature. Google can either create awesome robots that inspire the imagination, or test the very boundaries of their “Don’t be evil” slogan.