Industry News

Army of Google: Danger or Hope?

Maria Shirshova | February 17, 2014

When Google announced that a secret division of the company has been buying up robotics companies for the past six months, the Internet got excited. From toys on four legs to sturdy machines fit for the battlefield...

They started with Boston Dynamics, a company which has been working for the Pentagon for 17 years. The products were revealed and got enormous attention in the web: SandFlea - a remote controlled car, which can jump up to 30 feet into the air. PetMan - a realistic walking robot, BigDog was Boston Dynamic's first online star - this quadrupedal toiler is built to tackle difficult terrain and carry heavy loads, Cheetah got a world record for the world's fastest legged robot. RHex is a small six-legged bot that has a number of "specialized gaits" with minimal operator input.

The numbers of soldiers in Google's army has been growing with such names as Schaft Inc, Industrial Perception, Redwood Robotics, Meka Robotics, Holomini, Bot & Dolly and, DeepMind Technologies.

Wall Street Journal reported that Google and Foxconn, one of the world's largest manufacturers, producing technology equipment, have been working together to develop new robotic manufacturing technologies. Considering their recent robot-based initiatives, it's no surprise that Google and Foxconn would choose to collaborate. Last year, the Taiwan-based company announced plans to invest $40 million in a robot manufacturing facility in Pennsylvania. It looks like Foxconn wants to be part of the manufacturing "renaissance" in the US.

There is an opinion, that Google is playing the eccentric billionaire's game and investing in something it knows nothing about. "One way of looking at this is as a natural extension of search engines," said Vijay Kumar, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's a way to tie information and connect it to objects in the physical world."

The complete substitution of humans with robots in the workplace, is still a question.

Shifting manufacturing away from Asia won't be easy - since technology companies rely on tightly integrated supply chains rooted in China - and the effects of automation on the American job market are still uncertain. More domestically produced electronics and cars, for instance, would create demand for technicians and mechanics, jobs still best suited to humans.

One of the technologies that may be a future focus for Google, most of which is based on the very technology DeepMind brings to the table: machine learning.

So, what is machine learning, exactly? Stanford University computer science professor Andrew Ng defines it as "the science of getting computers to act without being explicitly programmed."

Google prefers to avoid clear detailed comments regarding future strategic plans. However, the diversity of the robots they've chosen to invest in, brings us to the conclusion that Google might see robots as transforming society. It presumably visualizes a future in which there are as many robots as there are people.

Some scientists are enthusiastic, seeing a revolution that will set free humanity from the difficult and annoying tasks of modern life or, with battlefield robots, removing human soldiers from the danger of getting hurt or killed.

Others are concerned about the long-term effect of allowing machines to replace humans wholesale - especially if a company with access to private data such as Google controls them.

The fact that the robotics business can score Google an extra $5 billion per year, sounds like a promising invitation to enter the age of robotics.

Professor Illah Nourbasksh, of Carnegie Mellon University, one of the world's foremost robotics academics, has an opinion that Google's plans mark the 'long and dangerous road ... to human extinction'.

Not to finish article on a scary note: The only way for us to find out the truth is to wait. Sooner or later, we will know.


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