Google: The Robot Company
|by Stephen Petranek|
Is Google gearing up to compete with Amazon's flying drones for delivery services? Or was Jeff Bezos blowing smoke and mirrors when he announced his delivery service idea of using unmanned quadcopters?
The CEO of a major bookseller who competes head-on with Amazon told me Saturday that he thought Bezos' idea was a marketing trick. "It was just to draw attention to Amazon at the beginning of the Internet-buying holiday season," he said, smiling broadly. I suspect he's correct.
But we cannot ignore the fact that in the last six months, Google has purchased most of the best robotics companies in America -- Industrial Perception, Meka, Schaft, Redwood Robotics, Bot & Dolly, Holomni and Autofuss. Some of the acquired firms make humanoid robotics, but others, like Industrial Perception, tend to develop traditional robotic arms.
These acquisitions were interesting and worth watching, but on Saturday, Google announced the purchase of Boston Dynamics, one of the most sophisticated robot developers on the planet. Boston Dynamics is the company DARPA and the military look to when they want a robotics problem solved. And Boston Dynamics has developed extraordinary autonomous robots like Wildcat (runs like a horse and carries gear), Cheetah (runs almost as fast as the cat it is named after) and the very spooky and way-too-humanlike Atlas robot.
Here are three YouTube links to watch (do not miss these!) to see how far robotics has come from noisy vacuum cleaners that bump into walls and then go another way:
So What Is Google up To?
Clearly, this is a major initiative not only because its new robotics companies are the cutting-edge innovators in the field, but also because Google has chosen to head up its new robotics effort with Andy Rubin, the engineer who came up with the idea for Android, the most popular smartphone operating system, and then led it to success. The company says it is focused on delivery systems and industrial applications. And please note that Google already delivers packages for several major retailers in several American cities.
Could a robot that delivers packages from a Google self-driving truck become the next United Parcel Service? Or are Google's sights even higher? A study out of Oxford University predicts the United States could lose 45% of its jobs to robots in the near future. Does Google envision an army of robotic workers who don't need health care and 401(k) benefits?
Google claims not to be headed directly for consumer robotics, like the new $700 iRobot model 880 Roomba vacuum cleaner. But I suspect the latter could be in for some horrendous competition. On Monday, its stock was up 5%. Apparently, some investors must think Google will buy it next.
But given the innovative horsepower of those eight acquisitions, it would probably take Google under a month to come up with a better vacuum cleaner that sells for less than iRobot's Roomba. It's worth saying that iRobot makes other robotics, including mobile hospital delivery platforms, but its bread and butter is consumer items like a $300 gutter cleaner that still requires you to climb a ladder and place the thing in the gutter.
I give iRobot kudos for tweaking and perfecting former MIT professor Rodney Brooks' Roomba concept, but the basic idea and technology is more than a decade old. And should the price be four times what it used to be? Are people going to buy a Roomba instead of a Miele? iRobot's product line is thin, lacks imagination and has not put any breakthrough ideas on the shelves of Costco. Even its explorer bots sold to the military and police for examining bombs and penetrating collapsed buildings look far too much like radio-controlled toys from 20 years ago.
The companies Google bought are highly innovative. I think iRobot is both unlikely to be bought by Google and able to compete with anything Google decides to focus on since the king of search started buying robotics firms.
We will certainly continue to cover this sector in the year to come. Stay tuned!
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