From Android to automatons: Rubin's robots are Google's next moonshot

Robot thinking

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Imagine this future: your smartphone chimes, you walk to the door, and touch your Android phone to a small tracked robot that hands you a package. Off it trundles back to a Google self-driving car, and on to the next delivery.

Sound far-fetched? Well, another piece of the puzzle dropped into place on Wednesday, when Google’s Andy Rubin revealed that he was heading up Google’s nascent robotics department. Speaking to The New York Times, Rubin actually revelaed little, other than that the company has picked up several robotics houses. The idea, however, is that the robotics project is less a “moonshot” than an attempt to achieve something like low earth orbit—a project designed to become a product sooner, rather than later.

As the Times notes, Google’s other projects have ranged from the ambitious to the practical. They encompass Project Loon, which aims to float routers on giant balloons to provide Internet access to underserved areas; the self-driving car, which has spurred similar efforts by automakers even if Google doesn’t eventually plan its own products; and Google Glass, which is already shipping to early adopters and will become a formal product sometime in 2014.

”Your order of “Breaking Bad: Season 2 (Blu-ray) is ready, ma’am.”

”I am excited about Andy Rubin’s next project,” Larry Page, Google’s chief executive, said on his Google+ page. “His last big bet, Android, started off as a crazy idea that ended up putting a supercomputer in hundreds of millions of pockets.  It is still very early days for this, but I can’t wait to see the progress.”

Rubin himself, who only occasionally publicly posts to Google+, didn’t offer any further clarifications.

What Google intends to do with the robotics project isn’t clear. The Times notes that Google has bought up Schaft, a small team of Japanese roboticists who recently left Tokyo University to develop a humanoid robot, and Industrial Perception, a start-up that has developed computer vision systems and robot arms for loading and unloading trucks.

According to the International Federation of Robotics, robot sales slightly decreased in 2012 by 4 percent, to 159,346 units, the second highest level ever recorded for one year. The decline of robot sales to the electrical electronics industry was the main cause for the slight sales reduction, the IFR said. Between 2014 and 2016, the IFR said that worldwide robot sales will increase by about 6 percent on average per year, to more than 190,000 units.

Kuka industrial
Industrial robots at work.

Google could certainly use its robotics expertise to improve the factory floor, where more assembly lines are governed by robots, rather than teams of skilled workers. But Google has traditionally set its sights on individuals first, rather than businesses. (The humanoid robots described at the beginning of the Times story reinforces that notion.)

But Amazon’s speculative drone delivery fantasy also suggests that delivery could be a possible target of Google’s robotics arm. Google recently launched Google Shopping Express, a same-day delivery service in San Francisco and San Jose that nominally competes with a similar effort by Amazon in Seattle. Google already knows the best path to your door, and it’s busy programming cars to negotiate those turns themselves.

In reality, it’s probably more feasible to suggest that a fleet of self-driving vans armed with some sort of automated lockbox would be more feasible than dispatching a robot to your front door. But there’s another aspect: After Google maps the world’s roads, what’s next? There’s millions of miles of sidewalks and paths for Google’s robotic minions to explore. And all it needs are the robotic legs to take them there.

This story, "From Android to automatons: Rubin's robots are Google's next moonshot" was originally published by TechHive.

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