AJung Moon on “What does it mean to have giants like Google, Apple and Amazon investing in robotics?”

12 February 2014

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We have reasons to feel both excited and uneasy about giant corporations’ investment in robotics.

It’s exciting for the robotics community that the giants (Google, Apple, and Amazon) are actively investing in robotics.

Indeed, my initial response to hearing about Google’s first seven of a series of acquisitions of robotics-related companies was a very positive one (these companies include Shaft, Industrial Perception, Meka Robotics, Redwood Robotics, Bot & Dolly, Autofuss, and Holomni, see Frank Tobe’s article for more details on these companies). Technologies from these companies are ones that can make robots mobile, perceptive, responsive, and interactive. The fact that the companies are now housed under one giant roof of Google made me imagine a future of next generation robots where Google-branded humanoids will be the next Baxter, working shoulder-to-shoulder with people in dynamic manufacturing environments, or assisting caregivers and serving seniors at care facilities. How could it not be exciting?

Even if Google’s actual direction is to put bipedal robots in self-driving cars so that people can enjoy fast, fully-autonomous door-to-door delivery of flowers on Valentine’s Day, my view was that such investments can only be good for the robotics community. Large scale investments by giant corporations, regardless of what their actual plans are, can have a positive impact on the job market for roboticists, increase competition between the giants and push robotics forward.

Then I began to feel a little bit uneasy when Google acquired Boston Dynamics. That’s because Boston Dynamics is not only a company with one of the most impressive control systems I’ve ever seen (I’m sure many of you will agree with this from the video of Boston Dynamic’s Big Dog, which has over 15 million views on YouTube), but it’s also a company that is known to have developed such impressive systems for the Pentagon, of all clients.

What does this all mean? What is Google planning to do with robots that can keep itself upright after being kicked, walk through rough terrains, run as fast as 29 miles per hour? The combination of Google-acquired companies became even more mysterious when the London-based AI company, DeepMind, was added to the mix. It’s safe to say that the uncertainty over Google’s plans with these companies has stirred up quite a bit of concern to the general public: some media coverage on the topic have been hyping the idea of Google building Skynet or being in the business of building robot soldiers.

Unless Google is indeed headed in those directions, I don’t believe that the public concern about the possibility of human extinction by Google-made robots in the near future is a good thing, either for the company or for the field of robotics in general. I think that public concerns over Google’s investment directions exist today because we, as a society, lack the presence of governing bodies whose role is to ensure that robotics technologies are developed and used for purposes desirable for the society, in manners aligned with society’s values.

However, I do applaud the fact that Google is setting up an ethics board to presumably oversee what they will and will not do with their technologies. If Google takes ethics seriously, I think Google could be a game changer in robotics (although it already is), not just by producing and selling cool robots in the future, but more importantly, by leading the way of tightly coupling ethics in robotics and making robots that “don’t do evil”.

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AJung Moon explores how robots affect people and how this knowledge should inform interactive robot design
AJung Moon explores how robots affect people and how this knowledge should inform interactive robot design

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