Friday, April 18, 2014
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Earlier this month, there were reports of Google scooping up eight robotic companies in a mere six months. Redwood Robotics specializes in arms, not weapons, arms. Industrial Perception focuses on 3D vision and Meka produces lovable humanoid heads. Since Google hasn't said much about why it bought these and the other companies, the media filled the void with nervous speculation. What might Google do with a robot army, a particular focus centered on Boston Dynamics, a company that’s used military money to develop Big Dog, which hops and hums over rough terrain like a man-sized insect, WildCat that sprints like a metallic wolverine, Sand Flea which scuttles like a crab and leaps like a cat and Atlas and Pet Man who, believe me, you’ve already seen in your dreams.
Henrik Christensen is a professor of robotics at Georgia Tech. Welcome to the show.
HENRIK CHRISTENSEN: Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This list of recent acquisitions covers AI, disaster relief robots, a four-legged robot that can run 30 miles an hour. Why?
HENRIK CHRISTENSEN: Well, it really all boils down to competition on the market. Today, if you’re trying to do product research, you will typically go to Amazon. Google is trying to get into the logistics and material handling so that they can actually compete and make sure you go there to buy products, rather than going to Amazon.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right, we search Google for information, we search Amazon for stuff. It wants us to search Google for stuff.
HENRIK CHRISTENSEN: Exactly. So, for instance, in San Francisco there is something called Google Express, where the idea is that you can basically go to them and say, I want to buy a ring for my wife, and then they will actually send a driver to the store, buy the item, bring it to your spouse. And, in the long term, now that we have autonomously-driving cars, if we now used these smart robots, we would be able to pick these items up and actually deliver them. But it’s very much about getting you back to use Google because a lot of their revenue is based on advertising. So if they know what you’re looking for, they can make sure that they put the right ads in front of you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right, I can see how driverless cars might do that. But what do you need Big Dog and, and WildCat and Cheetah for, that are tested for rough terrain, and the other ones that –
HENRIK CHRISTENSEN: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - walk through water? Is that so they don’t have to use the highways?
HENRIK CHRISTENSEN: If we think about it, to me there are really three reasons why you do these acquisitions. One of them has to do with manufacturing. So can we automatically manufacture electronic goods, various kinds of assembly actions? Two, can we do the supply chain so we can drive it back and forth? And three, today Google Maps are incredible. You can get Street View wherever you can drive a car. But you can’t really get these very detailed Google maps as soon as you go off road. So being able to use Boston Dynamics and the other company that they bought, Schaft, gives them very agile robots and a high degree of autonomy that would allow you to build very detailed Google Maps of anywhere in the world. So you, you really have to look at it as the entire supply chain. How can you do better manufacturing, how can you do better deliveries and how can you make sure that you have what we in technical terms would call a geographic information system, so now I can track you with my Android phone? I can know where were you last weekend. Based on this, I can have much more detailed information about what should I put up on your webpage to make sure that you buy the right things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, so you’re talking robotic Henry Ford-type plants, robotic Pony Express and potentially a robotic Lewis and Clark.
HENRIK CHRISTENSEN: Absolutely.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] But The Guardian noted that Google has not only bought almost every machine learning robotics company it could find, it also hired Geoff Hinton, probably the world’s leading expert on neural networks. And last year it brought on the famed inventor and AI advocate, Ray Kurzweil. Google, according to The Guardian, could embark on what one investor called “a Manhattan project of AI.”
HENRIK CHRISTENSEN: There is no doubt they’ve suddenly bought many of the best brains to work in this area, as you mentioned. We have really good people on machine learning, we have fantastic perception people. We have really good robotics people. If you had to collect sort of the most impressive group of roboticists in the world, Google would have it today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It strikes me that it’s a natural development for the company that created an algorithm that can now provide you with searches by working off your previous searches and even by understanding your misspellings, that develops translation technology, also based on collecting data of people’s mistakes [LAUGHS] and requests, that a company with that kind of expertise in software would move into robotics because, as one scientist said, “Robotics is different from software because it turns data into physical action automatically.”
HENRIK CHRISTENSEN: Exactly. That’s the ultimate dream, you know. Can we build a very intelligent assistant that, that will work in, in your daily life? I think it’s still a bit down the road, but if we interconnect the world, if you look at another company that Google has bought they bought Nest. Some people call it the thermostat company. What it really is, they have a number of key technologies on interconnecting to your home. The thermostat is one. The fire alarm is another one. It can understand what is the air quality, but you can also imagine that it’s connected up to your infrared protector and that will detect if there are any people present and if they move around, so that the light turns on when you enter the room and when you exit the room it turns off again. If you fall down and you don’t move for 30 minutes, it could signal to somebody that you might want to go and check on this person.
So it’s the ultimate service economy; you can tell me what services you want and we will deliver it to you. Of course, it would be at a cost.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you so much, Professor.
HENRIK CHRISTENSEN: Hey, thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Henrik Christensen is a professor of robotics at Georgia Tech.