Computing Google's robots

Google's latest foray into robotics promises to be its most important to date, as it harnesses the shift from automatons to intelligent units to crack the man-to-machine interaction code.

Google has capped off its pre-Christmas shopping spree with the acquisition of Boston Dynamics – the Massachusetts-based robotics company that has so far focused its attention on building a menagerie of mechanised beasts – BigDog, Cheetah and the LS3 pack mule – all designed with military applications in mind.

This isn’t Google’s first foray into robotics but it promises to be its most important to date. Having previously purchased the likes of Redwood Robotics, Meka, Autofusss, and Bot & Dolly, the purchase of Boston Dynamics seems like Google adding another piece to the puzzle.

Just what the end game is open to conjecture, but rest assured that Google’s robotics division, led by Andy Rubin, will be keen to put Google’s annual R&D budget of $US7 billion to good use.

The future is Google’s business and presumably given the company’s 'don't be evil' mantra, mechanised military minions are not on Google’s agenda.  

However, there are quite a few possibilities on how robotics could be part of the connected world that Google wants to propagate. A world where wearable computing, self-driving cars and automation has freed much of the society from a cycle of daily drudgery, as Google CEO Larry Page puts it improve lives.

It’s an admirable sentiment but how does Boston Dynamics aid Google’s quest?

Boston Dynamics started life in 1992 as a spin-off off Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and has since worked extensively with the US military and the Defence Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)

In fact, it is currently working on a set of humanoid robots dubbed Atlas, designed to participate in the DARPA robotics challenge; a two-year contest with a $US2 million prize.

While Redwood and Meka’s core competency lies in graspers and arms, and Bot & Dolly focuses on robotic camera systems, Boston Dynamics has created some of the most impressive functional robots to date.

The BigDog, Cheetah and the LS3 all exhibit substantial motion capabilities, especially in rough terrain. The integration of sensor, actuator control and communications systems, when coupled with the range of motion performance exhibited by Boston Dynamic’s robots provides a strong base for Rubin’s team.

Put all of these features together and Google has the ingredients for a dynamic robot that can perceive its environment and react accordingly.

And it's not just about understanding the mechanics but also the software that underpins the technology.

It’s unlikely that Google will at any point start churning out robots off a factory production line. Instead, it may choose to focus on developing applications that allow users to interface more comprehensively with their devices and their information.

How consumers interact with their devices is a key consideration not just for Google but Apple and Samsung as well. The trail of interaction is important not just in future device creation but also fits nicely with Google's core competency - organising information on the internet and making it more accessible.

The journey from automation to drones to robots is an evolving thematic that is running in tandem with the increasing digitisation of our lives.

Google's aspirations in robotics could be linked to harnessing the shift from pre-programmed automatons to intelligent units, capable of learning, In turn, this could open new pathways to understanding man-machine interactions. That means more data and more ways for Google to utilise that information.

Forget about terminators, Google's latest moon-shot is perhaps its most ambitious. Robots are already part of the industrial landscape but Google wants to integrate it as part of mass consumer consciousness.

The internet giant isn't alone in this quest, but it just might have the formula and the technology to make it work.

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