A competition in Homestead, Florida, is wrapping up and the winners may define the future of how robots will interact with humans. The robots coming from 16 robot design teams, including several teams owned and funded by Google, who assembled in Florida to compete in the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s competition. The competition will award the team who can demonstrate their robot has the best ability to rescue and aid humans $2 million. 8 teams will advance to the finals in 2014; each winning team will receive $1 million to prepare for the next competition.
The teams ranged from Massachusetts Institute of Technology to a hobbyist from Team Mojavation from Colorado. But one team, Schaft, stood out as a clear leader and is owned by Google. The team is made up of former Japanese students from the laboratory of famed robotics pioneer Hirochika Inoue. Dr. Inoue began working in the field 50 years ago and was among the first to produce an artificial humanoid that could walk and manipulate objects. The students studied under Masayuki Inaba, who was a pupil of Dr. Inoue. After leaving the lab, they formed the company Schaft, which Google purchased. The team garnered 27 of a total 32 points in 8 separate categories to win a decisive victory in the competition.
The competition was targeted at functionality such as climbing ladders, stepping through doorways and turning valves. The need for robots performing such tasks came out of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster. There was an urgent need for robots to perform tasks in areas where humans could not enter. In the future robots will be coming to the aid of humans and it is very likely that Google will own a share of the technology.
The robots ranged from spider-like multi-pedal units that scampered across the ground to 6’2″ 275-300 pound two-legged humanoid machines with such names as Valkyrie and Atlas. The robot Atlas has seven versions in the competition. These hulking humanoids were built by the company Boston Dynamics, also recently purchased by Google.
Why is Google suddenly showing up in the robotics frontier, and how deep into the technology are they? This year Google has purchased 8 robotics companies including Schaft, Boston Dynamics, Industrial Perception, and Rethink Robotics. Google has also acquired 2 start-up companies; Bot & Dolly and AutoFuss. Also of interest is who Google is hiring into their robotic ranks. This year, they hired machine learning expert Geoffrey Hinton and last year, they hired famed inventor and artificial intelligence promoter Ray Kurzweil. Google is positioning for the coming of robotic technology and they are owning it early in the process.
Google sees several paths that future robots will walk. One is obviously in automation of warehouses and factories. This is nothing new as car manufacturers have used the technology for years to move heavy objects and assemble products. However, Google is picking up companies that build improved sensors, servo-motors and software design; three of Google’s recent acquisitions fall into this category. Google is looking towards a future of automated warehouses where robots will be able to discern the correct object to pick and package. This is where Google acquisition Industrial Perception shines. They are working on developing robots with 3D vision capabilities that will assist in identifying items in bins and be able to manage packages of different weights and sizes.
These are the robots for boring automated tasks that humans either will not do or can not do. But then there is the Google company Meka. Meka has helped design “Dreamer,” a sociable humanoid that can interact with humans. Meka contends that humans will more likely feel comfortable with a robot who looks like a character or animation character. Meka’s design features are meant to be soft and human compliant. Through a joint venture with Redwood Robotics, also owned by Google, a robot will be developed that is safe to be around humans in everyday environments and work areas. The pincers, hands and arms can be pushed out of the way are and are sophisticated enough not to crush fingers with a handshake.
Google’s business model has always been focused on ideas that have commercial potential. Google knows that robots are coming and will have a large commercial potential and Google wants to own as much of the market share as possible.
By Anthony Clark