Almost human? Google's developing robots

Google revealed it is working on developing humanoid robots that will automate daily tasks, on the heels of Amazon announcing a new drone-delivery program. The moves indicate that automated delivery services, and perhaps much more, could be on the horizon.

Michael Dalder/Reuters/File
In the future, Google Shopping Express might compete with Amazon Prime and other online-to-offline shopping services, according to some reports. Here, the Google logo is modified with two one-Euro coins in an illustration.

First it was Amazon drones; now Google is rolling out robots.

The tech company revealed it is developing humanoid robots focused on automating daily tasks, according to The New York Times Wednesday, right on the heels of Amazon announcing the development of a drone delivery program, PrimeAir. Though Google remained tight-lipped on where the project stands, and what specific tasks its robots might do, the announcement has spurred conversation on what role artificial intelligence and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) may play in our future.

The project is spearheaded by Google executive Andy Rubin; better known as the engineer who built Google’s Android software. He sees the robots as a way to alleviate daily grunt work, possibly in a consumer goods delivery setting. As the article points out, he believes there are both "manufacturing and logistics markets that [are] not being served by today’s robotic technologies, and that they [are] clear opportunities".

Does that mean we might one day see a GoogleBot working in an Amazon warehouse?

News of Google's plans comes just days after Amazon debuted PrimeAir, a drone delivery program that would fly packages from Amazon's warehouses to customers' doorsteps in 30 minutes. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor and director of the MIT Humans and Automation lab Missy Cummings says this technology is far more likely to come to fruition than the Google robots. She points out that the Australian textbook rental company, Zookal, has a joint-venture company called Flirtey, which already plans on drone deliveries of books by next spring.

Robot technology – specifically what tries to mimic humans – on the other hand, she says is still deep in development.

"The humanoid robot is the most experimental of the robot world," she says.“There are some relatively minor issues in drones, but we do not have any humanoid robots that have the robustness and flexibility right now that could be commercially viable."

Though Google has yet to confirm how the robots could potentially function, the New York Times points out previous efforts by the tech company focus on consumer goods.

Google has experimented with same-day delivery grocery service in the San Francisco Bay Area, and delved into package delivery service for major consumer companies like Target, Walgeens, and American Eagle. Working with robots could potentially automate some of the factory, assembly, or even delivery of items, especially when combined with its recent efforts to develop a self-driving car.

Google recently acquired seven companies focused on robotics technology, which provide a bit of insight into the company's potential end game. These range from Autofuss, a San Francisco company that uses robots to create advertisements, to Holomni, a Mountain View, Calif. company that automates vehicle wheel motions, to Industrial Perception, a Palo Alto-headquartered business that uses 3-D vision to automate loading trucks and handling packages. There is also Redwood Robotics, a San Francisco-based company that focuses on creating robot arms for use in service industries.

One detail seems likely given two companies Google has acquired: the robots are going to look like humans. Meka Robotics, an MIT spin-off company that builds robot parts that look “friendly” to humans (read: big eyes, human torso), and Schaft, a University of Tokyo spin-off that focuses on humanoid robots, were both recently acquired by Google.

The acquisitions round out with Bot & Dolly, a company that creates robotic arms for film-making (most recently utilized in the movie “Gravity).

Regardless of what may soon be buzzing overhead or knocking on doors, there seems to be a sense of unease about the use of artificial intelligence and UAVs. The FAA has been cautious about allowing drones for commercial use – its has only approved one thus far, and plans on regulating the use of national airspace by drones in years to come.

Cummings, however, says that the use of robots and UAVs can actually make certain operations safer and more manageable. For example, she points out the recent train derailment in New York may have been caused by human error. And aside from that, the push to more automated technology isn't always focused on replacing robots with humans. Using football as a metaphor, she says humans may find themselves transitioning from a hands-on role to a decision-making role.

“There is still a role for humans,” she says. “[But] with more of the automated technology coming online, humans have got to be the quarterback.”

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