then you?re doing the wrong things.?
?Larry Page, CEO, Google
Fear and loathing in the Valley?
Google bought what!? Eight robot companies! Larry, that?s totally crazy, or is it?
More than one Silicon Valley robot developer is grumbling?in a worried way?that Google?s scooping up of eight top-flight robotics companies has sucked the air out of the room.
Some say they somehow feel less, well, less confident of their future chances for success as robot builders or feel superfluous now that GoogleBots are massing offstage somewhere.
I related that to an investor friend who pooh-poohed the fear as a case of looking out of the wrong end of the telescope.
He was ecstatic because this was Google?s stamp of approval on the robotics industry, which meant that robotics had landed, was really real, was the rising tide that raises all robots, and all that stuff. Ergo, Google?s in the robot hunt and how can that not be good?
Many, maybe most, agree with the investor’s viewpoint. The robotics community overwhelmingly voted for Google to our RBR50 list?for the first time?just two months after the eight acquisitions. Maybe a bit of voter’s remorse has set in with some since February.
See related: Inside Google?s Latest Series of Acquisitions
However the Google acquisitions play out with other robotic developers, it got me to thinking about Google, its nature and what it does. Google reminded me of another high-tech crew who were also a bunch of different thinkers and crazy doers?and data hunters.
Reminiscent of the Rad Lab
Although separated by the better part of a century, the anything?s possible, intellectual style and spirit of creative technology that was the hallmark of MIT?s famous Radiation Lab (1940-1945) seems very much alive at the Googleplex.
In fact, Google has jacked to the max the Radiation Lab?s signature of ?the seemingly incidental surprisingly being actually integral? technology extensions.
The Radiation Lab crew would have howled with delight at the search giant?s scooping up of eight robotics companies; then howled again at it building an air force of blimps and high-flying drones.
When President Franklin Roosevelt authorized Vannevar Bush (1890-1974) in July 1940 to take on the country’s wartime R&D efforts, Bush had no idea that, in creating MIT’s Radiation Laboratory, it would have such a profound effect on technology long after the war ended.
Neither did Google when it first closed Susan Wojcicki’s garage doors and cranked up its operations in 1998.
Bush and physicist/millionaire Alfred Loomis rounded up the best minds in the country and stuffed them into an old wooden structure on MIT’s campus that soon took on the name of the Rad Lab.
Of the three thousand people who eventually worked there, brazenly new technology and a dozen future Nobel Laureates ushered forth.
Bush and Loomis loved the crazy gang of brilliant humanity pulled in by their dragnet.
As Robert Buderi said of them in his Engines of Tomorrow: The Rad Lab’s
“radar work played a critical role in the evolution of postwar science and technology. Besides having a direct impact on specific landmark creations and discoveries–including the transistor, nuclear magnetic resonance, wireless communications, microwave ovens, radio astronomy, and the maser and laser–the radar effort helped spark a whole new attitude about the management of research as a fast-paced, collaborative, and cross-disciplinary affair.”
Sound familiar? Very Google-like. To think that the Rad Lab was only around from 1940 to 1945 is mind blowing.
Compare: Google Successes and Failures
The data hunters
The Rad Lab?s smart but cocky crew, jammed in elbow to elbow together, invented microwave radar, air navigation, and LORAN navigation.
Although they built successful microwave radars?in a way, microwave search engines?they knew that it was really all about information: information brought back to their antennas by reflected microwaves.
Post-war, most carried on the same information pursuits. Rad Lab vet like Jerrold Zacharias and his cesium-beam clock would stretch information again in pioneering the way to GPS.
Jay Forrester and Bob Everett, two other vets, would build the first general-purpose, electronic digital computer?along with the first high level programming language that John Backus would later ape to create Fortran (previously FORTRAN, derived from Formula Translating System).
Again, information: they were all about information.
As Charles Seife in Decoding the Universe puts it, everything in the universe is shaped by the information it contains: ?Information sits at the center of our cells and information rattles around in our brains?information, quite literally, shapes our universe.?
Similar to their creators, robots also can?t escape from this gyre of information; they are shaped by it as well.
Robots are information machines. The better the robot each is, the better the information machine it will become.
And they made money at it
Like Google, the Rad Lab crew was amazingly successful, which stoked their confidence in themselves all the more. Their R&D never lingered in labs, it went immediately into useful products that were put to immediate use.
As the saying goes: The atomic bomb may have ended the war but radar won it.
These guys rocked! The Rad Lab could well be an Xbox game!
It seemed that they could do anything that they put their minds and hands to, and usually did. That they were the engine of a $1.5B (that?s wartime dollars!) business really set them apart.
They were too impatient for just lab work issuing up a few half-baked prototypes. They took on the big, impossible jobs and knocked off real-world products every time out. Even Google can?t claim that batting average.
The cool difference with Google, one that the Rad Lab crew would adore, is that it doesn?t have to worry about seeking permission from a stuffy board of trustees or shareholders to take on these mind-bending projects, because, with Google, the inmates run the asylum.
The Rad Lab had a large benefactor as well in Uncle Sam?s limitless bankroll. They had very little time to spend it; and everyone was encouraged to think as big as possible and to spend wisely.
That?s every smart kid?s dream job.
It?s the same dream that Google uses to grow its staff. Google doesn?t need a dragnet to get its people: it receives 2.5M resumes a year; one every five minutes.
And those 2.5M resumes don?t arrive because of GooglePods, fancy chow, Kind granola bars and Stumptown coffee. They arrive because Google encourages and fosters big thinking, big ideas, big aspirations, and provides big funds to get things done in a very big way.
At Google, good ideas are expected to live beyond a deck of PowerPoint slides; they are expected to become something, preferably something big. At the Rad Lab, that type of work style was a way of life.
Some of Google?s best thinking ends up changing things: Android; however, some of its best thinking doesn?t: Motorola.
New attitude about the management of research
At the war?s end in 1945, the Rad Lab spat out its hostages almost all at once. They took their experiences, scattered, then set about creating the future.
Jay and Bob told me that their most interesting take-away from the Rad Lab was the notion of pulsed circuits: the on-off, 1s and 0s that would define the digital age.
They and their post-war, ex-Rad Lab mates moved themselves a few blocks away to the Barta Building where they went on to design the world?s first general-purpose, electronic digital computer in 1947?and then built it in 1948.
Nothing?s been quite the same ever since.
Was Jay and Bob?s first-ever computer project any different than Andy Rubin?s first-ever robot project?
Unlike Jay and Bob, Andy will never have to chase the dollars, the supplies, the work space and the good graces of people in order to sustain his big idea.
And there are eight robot companies that will directly and greatly benefit from the largesse of the inmates. What a sigh of relief those folks must be feeling.
Are GoogleBots near?
In taking on this huit d?un coup in robotics, Google has done one thing for sure: it has taken the oft-heard lament about the coming of robotics being ?just around the corner,? and squashed the hell out of it.
Tyler Cowen in his Average Is Over foresees a U.S., Canada and Mexico coalition banding together to invest in ?customized robot production and then to use these investments to dominate global manufacturing.?
That?s awfully big talk for something that?s supposedly still coming around the corner: it just goes to show that no one believes in that ?coming around the corner? crap any longer. The robot revolution is here now and blooming.
If Cowen?s vision is only partly true, which it probably is, and if Google is only partly successful in fielding GoogleBots, then that would still put Google at the epicenter of a major world-changing event?just where Google likes to be.
And of the sizeable investment spent on acquiring these eight companies? No one will remember or even care. And no robot developer will ever remember a jot about grumbling, depression or feelings of being superfluous. Success has a funny habit of doing that to people.
Difficult enough for Google will be getting eight robotics companies to rally around a single flag, to craft eight cultures, eight research styles, and eight differing products into continuing to excel at each of the eight world-class specialties while learning to work together on a common bust-out GoogleBot.
Hey Google, as things progress, please keep the Rad Lab crew in the email loop.
If Vannevar Bush was still with us, he?d be over to Google for lunch every day, feeling right at home immersed in the collisions of tech chatter and the relentless pursuit of turning big ideas into disruptive technology that matters!
As Bush once wrote: “The scene changes but the aspirations of men of good will persist.”
Yes, Larry, it was definitely a crazy thing to do?crazy good! Godspeed, Andy Rubin.