January 06, 2016      

Sad trombones

The day may be just around the corner when Google co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, sit down to have that talk they’ve been meaning to have for a year or more now to ask themselves: “Tell me again the reason why we bought eight robotics companies?”

It’s a basic question suddenly made more relevant now that Jim Kuffner, the other of the two co-founders of the Google robotics division, has driven off in a Celica.

Fellow co-founder of the robotics division, Andy Rubin, had already bolted for the decidedly non-robotics climes of venture capital at Redpoint and his hardware-focused incubator called Playground Global, now the proud recipients of a $300 million investment, added to a previous $48 million from last April.

Both Kuffner and Rubin were robotics guys who were the architects of a highly selective grabbing up of eight world-class robotics companies in December of 2013 (rumored to have set Google back some $50 million to $90 million for the eight).

jk from google

Business Insider quoted Rubin’s 2014 assessment of what had been gathered together: “We have built a world-class organization that is well on its way to launching its first products based on robotic technologies — this team will take more than 20 years of robotic research and launch a suite of 1.0 products that will be the foundation for future consumer products that interact with the physical world.”

Rubin left in October 2014, after a year at the helm of the division. He didn’t give a reason for his departure and left without a trace of a “suite of 1.0 products” or even a single new Google product to announce, or even a plan of action for a suite or a product or whatever. Maybe that’s why he left.

One year on again, and this time, it’s Kuffner’s turn to bolt, driving off to join former DARPA leader, Gil Pratt, and 200 other engineers at Toyota’s cushy new $1 billion research facility in Silicon Valley near Stanford. Pratt is the CEO of the new Toyota Research Institute. The lab will endeavor to bring artificial intelligence and robotics to Toyota?s future vehicle offerings.

What exactly hastened and precipitated Kuffner’s departure may well have been Google’s move last month to move the robotics division, known internally as Replicant, and conjoin it with the company’s Google X hardware lab — best known for Google’s self-driving car, which is commanded by Sergey himself, with Astro Teller (Captain of Moonshots) directing the day-to-day activities.

Kuffner, remarking on his departure, told a Las Vegas audience yesterday: “It’s becoming clear that in the next phase of machine learning, access to lots of data to find and fix corner cases and to make a robust system is going to be very important, and I think Toyota is very well-positioned to do that with its resources and its data.”

Hey, good luck to both Jim and Andy. Have a great 2016.

What’s up at Google?

Still, what will become of the new robotics appendage, and it seems to be no more than an appendage, and better still, Google’s mantra of “changing the world” through high tech?

Kuffner, like Rubin, left in a trail of silence. Google, again, is also silent about it all.

And what of the brilliant minds that took each of these eight robotics companies from their originating labs and into the light of day as products, real, gosh darn products that worked? Twenty years of hard work in all, according to Rubin.

Then too, maybe like the brilliant minds from the Manhattan Project, they need a Leslie Groves to establish order, dole out marching orders, and then to lead. Like the Manhattan Project was back then, great robotics is vitally needed these days and into the future.

Google has obviously failed them, or they all failed each other, Google included. Harsh, yes, but true with respect to Silicon Valley developer time. Replicant, it seems, has become a disaster of sorts that Jim and Sergey have yet to sort out. Good time for a chat.

Google forever owns the valuable intellectual property (IP) from these eight, but certainly not the valuable, creative minds that fashioned the IP. Who among them is next to rage against the dying of the light and go off “un-gently” into that good night?

Ironically, Google is running a recruitment ad for engineers this week in the trades. Brain power is at a high premium in the Valley, and maybe like Rubin and now Kuffner more departures may be imminent.

It’s not easy becoming a Google world-beating product. If lots can be learned from things that go wrong, we need to know what went wrong at Replicant.