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Stifled ambitions: a review of Google robotics

October 24, 2017

Despite recent attempts to tease the robotics projects incubating at its Google X skunkworks, industry observers say that Google has done more to stifle than advance innovation in robotics.

A bit of history

On December 4th, 2013, John Markoff, a technology reporter for The New York Times, broke the story that Google had acquired seven robotic companies and that Andy Rubin, of Android fame, would be heading the group. Schaft, a Japanese start-up developing a humanoid robot; Industrial Perception, a Silicon Valley start-up that developed a computer vision system for loading and unloading trucks; Meka Robotics, a robot developer for academia; Redwood Robotics, a start-up intended to compete with the Baxter robot (and others) entering the small and medium-sized shop and factory marketplace; Bot & Dolly, a maker of robotic camera systems used for special effects such as in the movie “Gravity;” Autofuss, a design and marketing firm and a partner in Bot & Dolly; and Holomni, a maker of powered caster modules for omnidirectional vehicles.

On December 14th, 2013, Markoff followed up with the news that Google had added to its new stable of robotic companies by acquiring Boston Dynamics, a 20-year old developer of mobile and off-road robotics and human simulation technology mostly for DARPA and the Department of Defense.

Thus some of the leading startups in the industry and the whole 80+ talent pool from Boston Dynamics became part of Google. According to Markoff quoting Rubin,

“The company’s initial market will be in manufacturing, e.g., electronics assembly which is mostly done by hand. Manufacturing and logistics markets not being served by today’s robotic technologies are clear opportunity markets and the new Google robots will be able to automate any or all of the processes from the supply chain to the distribution channels to the consumer’s front door thereby creating a massive opportunity.”

The eight acquisitions were the talk of the business news but one piece from SFGate Tech Chronicles quoting Brian Gerkey described the positive sentiment best:

“Google’s move into robotics is likely to draw renewed attention and money into the space. It’s a pretty exciting day for robotics when someone like Google makes an investment like that in robots, others are likely to follow suit. It can only spur investment and innovation.”

Sales, vesting, transfers and departures

From 2014 to 2016 there were rumors and some media attention to the difficulties Google was having coordinating the talents within their robotic acquisitions, particularly after Rubin left and Google let it be known that they wanted to sell off Boston Dynamics because “their two- and four-legged robots were too far from being marketable.” Commercial projects were discussed but none came to fruition. People started to leave or move over to other parts of Google and GoogleX. Of the people that came from the 2013 acquisitions, some have left saying that the lack of direction and management had thwarted their desire to stay and contribute. Others have stayed but let it be known they’ll be available after their four-year sign-on stock options vest which will happen later this year.

In 2015 and 2016 the news of dissent continued as the name and group managers changed. No products emerged. James Kuffner led the robotics group until he left in January, 2016 to become the CTO of the Toyota Research Institute. Aaron Edsinger followed, but then he too left.

In June of 2017 Google finally found a buyer for Boston Dynamics – SoftBank. SoftBank also bought Schaft, a Japan-based startup whose walking robots never integrated into Google and, like Boston Dynamics, operated separately from the rest of Google’s robotics acquisitions.

For SoftBank, which acquired Aldebaran in 2012 and helped them make the humanoid robot Pepper, the two acquisitions offer mobility and robotics talent as SoftBank grows its SoftBank Robotics joint venture with Alibaba and Foxconn.

Google made a mess

In a blistering recap of Google’s involvement in robotics from 2013 until now, Mark Bergen and Joshua Brustein wrote in BloombergBusinessweek Magazine:

“None of the acquired companies have robots in use beyond the offices of Google’s now-parent company, Alphabet Inc. At least three key robotics chiefs who joined in that 2013 wave left the company in the last few months, and, because four years is the typical vesting period for Google stock options, they probably won’t be the last. At this point, the exodus counts as a win for robotics, since many of the brightest minds in the field have essentially spent the past few years trapped in a time capsule. Ultimately, Google’s run on roboticists held the industry back more than moving it forward.”

Google today

Google hasn’t entirely receded from robotics. There is Waymo, Alphabet’s autonomous-car division, and Titan (renamed Project Loon), Google’s drone development project. In fact, Project Loon balloons are being used today in Puerto Rico to provide stationary platforms from which emergency Internet and web services are available. Additionally, GoogleX has operated their “arm farm,” a room full of robotic arms that are learning to grasp and manipulate random objects and teach the other robots in the room how to do the same. In a recent GoogleX blog, Hans Peter Brondmo, who now heads up Google’s remaining robotics team, said:

We’re working with the Google Brain team to explore how to teach robots new skills by learning from their shared experience, and we’re even simulating robots in the cloud so they can train fast, and then we’re transferring this learning onto real robots. By having virtual robots we can gather lots of data for training in the cloud. Then we transfer what the virtual robots learn to the real-world robots so they can quickly learn to perform new tasks. This is all critical research that will pave the (long) path toward building machines that can learn new skills quickly and operate safely and cost effectively in the world we live in.”

Bottom line

Rumors abound about the value of Google’s ant farm (the room where a dozen or more robot arms are using machine learning and swarm control to pick and place random objects which Brondmo described in his blog). But so far, except for those that have left or moved over to Waymo, nothing but research has come from the 3-1/2 years Google has had a robotics group. Unless you count the years of anxiety, secrecy and disappointment for all those super-smart entrepreneurs that initially had hoped for so much of their new association with Google.

But as Brian Gerkey said, “…when someone like Google makes an investment like that in robots, others are likely to follow suit. It can only spur investment and innovation.” That has happened in spades! 2015, 2016 and 2017 have all shown exponential growth in investments and strategic acquisitions for the robotics industry.

Frank Tobe is the owner and publisher of The Robot Report, and is also a panel member for Robohub's Robotics by Invitation series... read more

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