December 05, 2013      

Is history repeating itself through Google?

Are Andy Rubin and Google going to do for robotics what Bob Taylor and ARPA?s (now DARPA) Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) did for the Internet: make it happen for real?

What the federal government is incapable of or unwilling to do to advance robotics, Google seems now to be taking on with all the gusto of its $350B market cap, a share price over $1,000 and a never-miss eye for building winning technology businesses. With Rubin?s shopping list in hand, Google has promptly made a startling and swift (in the past six months) seven-company robotics acquisition deal?just before going silent on what else it, Rubin and its band of seven intended to do next.

Beware nerds with cash, lots of it. Exactly what J.C.R. Licklider (?Lick? to his good buds and author of the seminal Man-Computer Symbiosis), Ivan Sutherland and Bob Taylor lacked back in 1962 but got in spades from ARPA. With lots of cash from the feds, Taylor and company ruled and spent like czars, but brought forth the Internet in seven short years, which is exactly what robotics can do now that the 800-pound gorilla is in the room.

Rubin, another Horace Greeley High School grad gone famous (others, to name a few: Adam Arkin, ?Chicago Hope?; Susan Hockfield, president of MIT; Steve Kroft, ?60 Minutes?; Vanessa Williams, Miss America, singer, actress, producer), sought and got the reins of yet another Google “moonshot” undertaking (Rubin formerly and winningly headed the very successful Google Android project).

The quest

There is without question a grand void for robotics to cross: heretofore it has floundered in building and perfecting a co-worker robot that can ably and robotically (for three shifts a day) grind out the drudge work that lurks for humans in warehouses and factories all over the world.

Rubin, from the look of his acquisitions, must have peered out across, for the most part, Silicon Valley, and seen a wonderful arm here, great eyes there, wheels somewhere else: a veritable ready-made robot worker strewn around in many pieces, fabricated by brilliant engineers struggling to feed themselves and build their machines. It’s the same kind of sad and woeful view “Lick” and Bob Taylor witnessed in computing some fifty years previous. Luckily, they got some bigtime ARPA cash.

Today’s roboticists, although not so lucky with government largesse, can now approach the Google nerds, who just happen to possess their own very rich kingdom and who like to listen to great ideas. Rubin merely has to display reasonableness about his quest, show merit in and the possibility of success in the grand scheme to basically the most altruistic duo he’ll ever meet in this lifetime: Sergey Brinn and Larry Page, two guys who like brain-teasing challenges, having fun and avoiding drudgery. That’s perfect for robotics!

Make no doubt, the global robotics community is watching, just like they watched and then scurried around to copy Baxter or make a co-worker of their own and then hurry it into the marketplace. The job’s not over by a long shot. Baxter basically left his assembly-line drudgery for college; we’re now awaiting Baxter 2.0. Other manufacturers aren’t shipping truckloads of their co-worker robots anywhere anytime soon. So, the time is ripe for a GoogleBot. And fellow Horace Greeley grad, Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes” fame, may soon be eyeing Rubin for some major prime-time exposure.

But first, let’s give them a chance to get integrated and organized.

The seven samurai

So what did Google and Rubin acquire? Here are the seven companies and what each hangs its hat on. See if you can glean Google’s future robot from the list.

John Markoff, writing in the New York Times says Google does not plan to sell the resulting product to consumers, but is expected to target manufacturing and retail. Hmmm, okay, that sounds reasonable.

However, in the light of the fact that Google has hired a team of engineers who make humanoid robots, the paper speculates that Google plans to use robots to automate the delivery of its self-driving cars. The paper also speculates that Google plans to go head-to-head against Amazon’s Prime Air Project, which envisages using drones to transport goods to its customers by air. And also speculation rages that Rubin may not be done with his shopping spree.

A lot of that seems a bit too premature and not very Googlesque.

If this was an episode of CSI Silicon Valley and the team was piecing together the body parts on Rubin’s shopping list, TV Guide might write: A team of GoogleBoticists create a smart, mobile robot (not necessarily humanoid) with dexterous arms and hands, with superhuman eyesight and faultless navigation with GPS and Google maps; a nimble co-worker robot capable of working with or without a human partner.

Okay, now it’s your turn. Here are the seven samurai:

  1. Holomni, a Mountain View, Calif. company that automates vehicle wheel motions.
  2. Industrial Perception, a Palo Alto-headquartered business that uses 3-D vision to automate loading trucks and handling packages.
  3. Redwood Robotics, a San Francisco-based company that focuses on creating robot arms for use in service industries. The startup was jointly ventured by Meka Robotics, Willow Garage (now disbanded), and the R&D institute, SRI International.
  4. Meka Robotics, an MIT spin-off company that builds robot parts, like the Meka arm, that look ?friendly? to humans.
  5. Schaft, a University of Tokyo spin-off that focuses on humanoid robots, Lead by a small team of Japanese roboticists, Schaft?s humanoid robot aims to fix one of the central problems facing most robots so far: They aren?t very strong. Core to that ambition is Schaft?s water-cooled, capacitor-powered motor system, which makes robots stronger while keeping them compact.
  6. Autofuss, a San Francisco company that uses robots to create advertisements (like for Google’s Nexus 5).
  7. Bot & Dolly, (sister company to AutoFuss) a company that creates robotic arms for film-making (most recently utilized in the movie Gravity).

Please stay tuned

As we speak, our startups’ correspondent in the Valley, Celeste LeCompte, is busily digging around for more facts, eavesdropping at FOMO meetings on the “giant” Google robotics startup that has just gone down and generally putting together the details of why Rubin, why these seven and what’s next. Maybe we’ll even find out the tab for Rubin’s grocery list.

So, drop by again soon.