Search giant eyes artificial intelligence, namely robotics

Blame it on Issac Asimov or on Hollywood films like The Terminator but the first image that comes to mind when one thinks of super-efficient robots is an apocalyptic future.

This paranoia was further fed last week when the computationally omniscient Google announced the acquisition of its eighth robotics company over the past few months, the high-profile Boston Dynamics.

Advanced robots

Boston Dynamics, a spinoff from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1992, has been closely working for the U.S. military with funding from Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The firm claims they make the most advanced robots on earth, and a glance through their online portfolio reveals that this isn’t far from the truth.

But then why is this global search giant and owner of the world’s leading smartphone platform doing business with robot makers?

Google has always been clear in its intention of wanting to expand far and wide, and that it is by no means the company’s intention to confine itself to search or operations systems, or even just software for that matter. Though Google’s Nexus family of tablets and phones have been later entrants in the game, when it comes to robotics, Google appears to be clear that it wants to get ahead of the competition.

Today, many technologies that once seemed to be the subject of sci-fi are already being tested for daily use, and a few of these paradigm shifting technology applications have come from Google labs. Picture-based search, self-driving cars, Google Glass and soon there might be Google robots. It appears that with the robotics venture, Google is positioning itself to make smarter robots more common.

Next big thing?

Aravind Krishnan, one of the core design engineers at Li2 Innovations, a robotics education startup based in Bangalore, predicts that Google’s move to be the next big technical revolution. “Microsoft is known to have brought PCs to every home and Nokia did the same with mobile phones. Perhaps Google will make a robot for every home — something we kept reading about in sci-fi — a reality,” he says.

All signs seem to be pointing towards the adoption of artificial intelligence in the form of robots and drones in the next few years. Recently, Amazon showcased their drone-based delivery mechanism — Prime Air. Google clearly wants to be the leader in this stint, he adds.

Andy Rubin, who delivered Google’s Android project is now heading the robotics project of Google, including handling of Boston Dynamics for Google. This former robotics engineer could not hide his excitement about the Boston Dynamics acquisition, tweeting “The future is looking awesome!”

Boston Dynamics effect

The first seven acquisitions by Google, including that of the Schaft, winner of the 2013 DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials for humanoids, did not trigger much popular interest when compared to the news of Boston Dynamics’ acquisition. This could be because of the perfection Boston Dynamics has already attained with its robot avatars.

Boston Dynamics robots have locomotive abilities that surpass the conventional wheel-based mechanisms for rover-like robots. Bipedal robots such as Atlas and Petman have almost as much degree of freedoms as humans do. Quadruped robots such as the Big Dog, Little Dog, Wild Cat and Cheetah mimic locomotive agility observed in animals by replicating joints. State-of-the-art control systems, complex logic and unorthodox design, emulating life-like locomotion puts Boston Dynamics on top of contemporary robotics.

With Google’s complex and massive cognitive computational engine, these robots soon might have their own conscience derived from the well-groomed artificial intelligence of Google, which is already growing in usage in the form of Google Now, the digital personal assistant.

Soon, a reality

Google’s pronounced plunge into robotics and Amazon’s venture of integrating drones into their spectrum of technology may be an indication of the next big turn in technology.

We are already deep into artificial intelligence with the pervasive use of smartphones and the ubiquitous Internet. With incorporation of more advanced forms of artificial intelligence such as the robots and drones as replacements for humans in dangerous tasks — such as rescue work, firefighting or even to perform mundane tasks on the industry floor — an Asimovian future of a human-robot society might not be far away.