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Posted by Anthony Mullen on December 17, 2013
Some exotica for the end of the year: Yesterday I did an interview with the French publication Nouvel Observateur on Google's recent robotics acquisition Boston Dynamics. Google has been acquiring robotics companies hand over fist during 2013, and it's quite a reveal of how they are planning for the Google of tomorrow - something of interest to almost every brand. Here is my short take:
1. Why did Google decide to invest in robotics?
Robots, like smartphones, are platforms for products and services. Data-obsessed organisations like Google need to ensure that they aren't disinter-mediated in the 'last mile' to the user, and that means getting involved in the physical world with hardware. Google is steadily moving from their position in the ether with search algorithms towards a more connected physical world - from their smartphones and Android operating system to their work on Android@Home. The robotics play here is essentially on the same trajectory - control and influence in the 'last mile,' where data is gleaned from the physical world and activities performed are informed by intelligence from the cloud and edge networks. It's a good fit for Google, and after Kurzweil joining them to head up AI, I'm not surprised things have moved so quickly in 2013.
2. Is there any logic to these investments?
Yes. Google is working on artificial intelligence projects that have a major overlap with the world of robotics - an increasingly adjacent domain for them. Their investments in AI techniques like visual, audio, and text recognition are software competencies which will bolster a robot's ability to handle unstructured environments. Further, their work in appraising context through experiments like Google Now will continue to mature and be leveraged not just by smartphone owners but by autonomous and semi-autonomous robots.
3. Is the world ready to have more robots in everyday life?
I'm certainly keen to upgrade my own dumb Roomba robot hoover to something with a bit more personality! Unfortunately, I don't think we will see much coming down the pipe for the majority of consumers in the next five years, but manufacturing will begin to use them more for warehouse and logistics functions. Receptiveness to robots in our culture will vary across the world - the Japanese, for example, have a growing ageing population with fewer children to take care of them, so it's no surprise that robotic innovations for care of the elderly were pioneered in Japan. A country with high unemployment would see things differently, of course.
4. Could Google be a major actor in the robotics market?
Certainly. Some of the major mechanistic and engineering challenges have now been overcome such as balance, walking, running, and dexterity of movement, so the next challenge will be to make robots smarter with regards to how they operate within an environment - either privately or publicly. This is where Google's AI competencies and depth of data can move things forward.
5. What kind of robots do you think Google will create?
In private, they will be creating early prototypes of Androids (humanistic features), service bots, and pets, leveraging their AI capabilities, but I think the first deployments will be industrial in nature, such as automating the supply chain for their Google Shopping service to ensure they can compete with Amazon.
Today we are working out how to be relevant on a smartphone, but can you envisage your brand operating on a robotic platform in the next five to 10 years?
What do you think?