All Tech Considered
5:17 pm
Mon March 17, 2014

With Google's Robot-Buying Binge, A Hat Tip To The Future

Originally published on Mon March 17, 2014 8:56 pm

In less than a year, Google has bought more than a half-dozen robotics companies, setting the industry abuzz. But when I ask Google what it's up to with all these robots, the company won't say a thing.

"They are very careful — they haven't disclosed what they are doing," says Richard Mahoney, the director of the robotics program at SRI International, a nonprofit technology accelerator in Menlo Park, Calif. Mahoney also served on the board of Redwood Robotics, one of the companies Google bought.

"If I had information that wasn't proprietary, I would share it," he says. "But right now they are being pretty careful about what they are telling people."

Mahoney, like dozens of others in the industry, had to sign a nondisclosure agreement to do business with Google. As I poke around, talking to folks even at companies that hadn't been bought by Google, these nondisclosure agreements keep popping up.

Brian Gerkey, CEO of the nonprofit Open Source Robotics Foundation, says he is under such an agreement with Google. "But even under an NDA, [Google] won't tell us anything," he says.

When I ask Melonee Wise, CEO of Unbounded Robotics, if Google had made a bid to buy her company, she says, laughing, "If they had, we couldn't disclose that."

The secrecy around Google's robotic ambitions has fueled some wild speculation. Theories of what Google is working on range from the wildly ambitious — picture a fully autonomous, self-aware C-3PO — to the mundane, like factory automation.

But as executives at Google seem to be cashing in on several new trends in robotics, it's also fostering a sense in the industry that, after decades of false starts and unfulfilled promise, robots may be on the verge of becoming ubiquitous.

A Better, Cheaper Robot

Elaborate sensors, chips and lightweight batteries built into smartphones have helped to dramatically reduce the price and increase the availability of many of the parts needed to build a robot.

Paola Santana, co-founder of Matternet, describes her company's lightweight delivery drones as little more than smartphones with wings.

Even sophisticated, multipurpose industrial robots are becoming much more affordable. Unbounded Robotics' flagship bot, the URB-1, is a friendly little orange-and-white robot on wheels. When it's cruising around the office, it's about the size of R2-D2.

UBR-1 has one arm that can reach around and grab things, and it gets taller when it stops — its spine extends.

"People are always surprised by that," said Wise, one of UBR-1's creators. "They'll say, 'Oh, it gets bigger, like ET!' "

UBR-1 is designed to work right next to people in warehouses and small business, doing tasks such as sorting packages. Previous generation of robots like this cost up to $400,000. UBR-1 and its competitors cost just a tenth of that.

Open-Source Software Platforms

A decade ago, building even the simplest robot was pretty tough, says Gerkey, at the Open Source Robotics Foundation. "To get a robot to do something useful, you need to be an expert in many, many different areas," he says.

Getting a bot to move around your house without crushing your dog was a multifaceted challenge. You'd need a mechanical engineer, computer vision expert and a wiz at motion planning all working together — just to get started.

But today, Gerkey says, open-source robotics software has many of these solutions baked right in. His foundation curates and distributes software that does the basics of robotics and hands it out to developers for free.

This has allowed researchers like Wise, at Unbounded Robotics, to tackle harder problems, such as trying to teach bots to plug themselves in.

"Just to recognize one type of outlet in different lighting conditions was a very difficult problem," Wise says.

Roboticists approach problems like this by feeding their machines reams of data. They show the robots thousands of pictures of different electrical outlets in different lighting conditions and create software to help the machines recognize the patterns.

It turns out this is also how Google teaches its search engine to anticipate your needs and offer you results before you've finished typing. It is exactly this kind of data-driven statistical analysis that is one of Google's core strengths.

And this skill set may well be why Google is suddenly feeling so much love for so many robots. If so, Wise understands. "I feel affectionate toward all robots," she says. "There is this growing series of pictures of me basically spazzing out and hugging robots."

Apparently, Google executives seem to know the feeling.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Time for All Tech Considered now. And our tech team is venturing along with many big companies these days into the realm of artificial intelligence. It's an industry that evokes science fiction. For instance, writer Isaac Asimov once wrote these rules for a fictional race of robots: Don't hurt humans, obey them and protect yourself unless that would require hurting a human or disobeying one. Well, today perhaps a fourth rule is in order: Don't be evil.

NPR's Steve Henn reports that Google is investing heavily in robotics, buying up more than half a dozen firms.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Google is on a robot buying binge. So Google has acquired...

BRIAN GERKEY: So, Redwood Robotics, Shaft...

MELONEE WISE: As far as I know, Boston Dynamics...

PAOLOA SANTANA, CO-FOUNDER, MATTERNETI: Well, they've disclosed publicly that they bought...

RICH MAHONEY: Bot and Dolly...

GERKEY: Buying Mecca...

MAHONEY: Autofuss...

GERKEY: IPI...

MATTERNETI: ...Nest

MAHONEY: Holomni...

GERKEY: Holomni...

HENN: That's Brian Gerkey, CEO of the Open Source Robotics Foundation, Rich Mahoney, director of the robotics program at SRI, Melonee Wise, CEO of Unbounded Robotics, and Paola Santana, co-founder of Matternet, a start-up drone delivery company.

Google's recent purchases of more than half a dozen little robotics companies has set the industry abuzz. But when I asked Google what they're up to with all these robots, the company wouldn't say a thing.

MAHONEY: They are very careful. They haven't disclosed. Nobody knows what they are doing, so expect that something good and powerful is going to come out of that.

HENN: Rich Mahoney was on the board of Redwood Robotics, one of the companies Google bought.

MAHONEY: So, if I had information that wasn't proprietary, I would share it. But right now, they are being pretty careful about what they are telling people.

HENN: So you signed and NDA?

MAHONEY: That's correct.

HENN: As I poked around, talking to folks at companies that hadn't been bought, these NDAs - nondisclosure agreements - kept popping up. Here's Brian Gerky at the nonprofit Open Source Robotics Foundation.

GERKEY: We are under NDA with Google. But even under the NDA, they won't tell us anything.

(LAUGHTER)

HENN: And again, with Melonee Wise at Unbounded Robotics.

Have they tried to buy you?

WISE: Well, if they had, we couldn't disclose that.

(LAUGHTER)

HENN: Theories about what Google is working on range from the wildly ambitious - picture a self-aware C-3PO - to the mundane, like factory automation. But one thing is clear: There are a couple trends in robotics that have captured the imagination of executives at Google. The first is that building robots is getting cheaper.

So, who is this?

WISE: This is UBR-1, our buddy.

HENN: UBR-1 is a friendly, little orange and white robot on wheels. He's a little bit like R2-D2 size. It has one arm that can reach around and grab stuff and when it stops...

WISE: We make the robot get taller.

HENN: It's spine goes up.

WISE: Like, oh, it gets bigger like E.T.

HENN: UBR-1 is designed to work right next to people in warehouses and small business, doing things like sorting packages. The previous generation of robots like this cost up to $400,000. But UBR-1 and its competitors costs just a tenth of that. And a decade ago, Brian Gerkey says if you wanted to build a robot to do anything, like clean up after your kids, it was pretty tough.

GERKEY: To get a robot to do something useful, you actually need to be an expert in many, many areas.

HENN: You'd have to be a mechanical engineer, a computer vision expert and a wiz at motion planning. But today, free open source robotics software has many of these solutions baked right in.

GERKEY: What you want, in order to be able to really innovate in this area, is to have all the basics, the things that everybody needs, just taken care of.

HENN: And that has freed up folks like Melonee Wise to tackle harder problems, like trying to teach a robot to plug itself into an electrical outlet.

WISE: Just to recognize one type of outlet in different lighting conditions was a very difficult problem.

HENN: Roboticists approach problems like this like this by feeding their machines reams of data. They show them thousands of pictures of different electrical outlets in different lighting conditions, and create software to help the machines recognize these patterns. And it turns out this is also how Google teaches its search engine to anticipate your needs, and offer you search results before you've even finished typing.

It is exactly this kind of data-driven statistical analysis that is one of Google's core strengths. And this skill set may well be why Google is suddenly feeling so much love for so many robots. If so, Melonee Wise understands.

WISE: I'm affectionate towards all robots. Actually, there is this growing series of pictures with me, like basically spazzing out and hugging robots.

HENN: Google executives seem to know that feeling. Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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