By Barry Levine / CIO Today. Updated December 16, 2013.
Like a voracious robot itself, Google is gobbling up robotics companies. The latest is Boston Dynamics, confirmed Friday.
The Waltham, Mass.-based Boston Dynamics is best known for its battlefield robots, which go by such names as BigDog, Cheetah, WildCat and Atlas. Terms of the deal, the eighth such acquisition in the last six months, were not announced.
The Boston Dynamics robots are characterized by their extreme walking, balancing and galloping abilities. One of the robots, Cheetah, can run up to 29 miles per hour, and BigDog can traverse hills or stay upright even in response to a direct kick by a human.
Founded in 1992 by former M.I.T. professor Marc Raibert, the company’s robots have largely been developed under contract with the Pentagon’s Defense Advance Research Projects Agency.
The big question is focused around Google’s intentions for these robots, heightened by its assignment of executive Andy Rubin, who led the development of Android, to oversee the robotics initiative. It is one of the company’s “moonshot” projects, so named because it is a highly ambitious, longshot effort that could go up in a puff of smoke -- or could change the world.
There are reportedly Google development teams working on robots in Japan as well as in California. While Google has indicated it will continue Boston Dynamics’ defense contracts, it is apparently not intent on expanding its portfolio into becoming a major military contractor.
Brad Shimmin, an analyst with industry research firm Current Analysis, told us that the robot acquisitions “seem like a next step” in the context of Google’s development of autonomous, self-driving cars. He said the company may be looking to create a new generation of self- or semi-autonomous robots for business or consumer markets, such as a robot that could deliver mail or packages in an office or to a building.
Moving into the '3D World’
Another possible synergy, Shimmin said, could be with the software intelligent agent Google Now, which is designed to know about the user’s needs from a variety of personal and general data sources, and could help move such virtual agentry into what he called “the 3D world.” Google has also been beefing up its artificial intelligence R&D, some of which is likely to become an asset for its robotics initiative.
Robots have currently acquired a substantial foothold in exploration and industry, such as NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars or robotic workers in warehouses and factories. But that presence could increase dramatically. A report earlier this fall from researchers at Oxford University, for instance, predicted that 45 percent of American jobs are at risk of being robotized.
Shimmin said he didn’t expected to see the results of Google’s current R&D efforts until at least 2017, and he pointed out that the company “often looks for the long-tail of products” that might have a small customer base at the beginning, but can grow over a long period.