(Note: this post first appeared on Forbes; this lightly edited version is re-posted here with permission.)
We’ve watched the rising interest in robotics for the past few years. It may have started with the birth of FIRST Robotics competitions, continued with the iRobot and the Roomba, and more recently with Google’s driverless cars. But in the last few weeks, there has been a big change. Suddenly, everybody’s talking about robots and robotics.
It might have been Jeff Bezos’ remark about using autonomous drones to deliver products by air. It’s a cool idea, though I think it’s farfetched, but that’s another story. Amazon Prime isn’t Amazon’s first venture into robotics: a year and a half ago, they bought Kiva Systems, which builds robots that Amazon uses in their massive warehouses. (Personally, I think package delivery by drone is unlikely for many, many reasons, but that’s another story, and certainly no reason for Amazon not to play with delivery in their labs.)
But what really lit the fire was Google’s acquisition of Boston Dynamics, a DARPA contractor that makes some of the most impressive mobile robots anywhere. It’s hard to watch their videos without falling in love with what their robots can do. Or becoming very scared. Or both. And, of course, Boston Dynamics isn’t a one-time buy. It’s the most recent in a series of eight robotics acquisitions, and I’d bet that it’s not the last in the series.
Google is clearly doing something big, but what? Unlike Jeff Bezos, Larry Page and Sergei Brin haven’t started talking about delivering packages with drones or anything like that. Neither has Andy Rubin, who is running the new robotics division. The NSA probably knows, to Google’s chagrin, but we won’t until they’re ready to tell us. Google has launched a number of insanely ambitious “moon shot” projects recently; I suspect this is another.
Whatever is coming from Google, we’ll certainly see even greater integration of robots into everyday life. Those robots will quickly become so much a part of our lives that we’ll cease to think of them as robots; they’ll just be the things we live with. At O’Reilly’s Foo Camp in 2012, Jason Huggins, creator of this Angry Birds-playing bot, remarked that robots are always part of the future. Little bits of that future break off and become part of the present, but when that happens, those bits cease to be “robots.” In 1945, a modern dishwasher would have been a miracle, as exotic as the space-age appliances in The Jetsons. But now, it’s just a dishwasher, and we’re trying to think of ways to make it more intelligent and network-enabled. Dishwashers, refrigerators, vacuums, stoves: is the mythical Internet-enabled refrigerator that orders milk when you’re running low a robot? What about a voice-controlled baking machine, where you walk up and tell it what kind of bread you want? Will we think of these as robots?
I doubt it. Much has been made of Google’s autonomous vehicles. Impressive as they are, autonomous robots are nowhere near as interesting as assistive robots, robots that assist humans in some difficult task. Driving around town is one thing, but BMW already has automatic parallel parking. But do we call these “robotic cars”? What about anti-lock brakes and other forms of computer-assisted driving that have been around for years? A modern airliner essentially flies itself from one airport to another, but do we see a Boeing 777 as a “robot”? We prefer not to, perhaps because we cherish the illusion that a human pilot is doing the flying. Robots are everywhere already; we’ve just trained ourselves not to see them.
We can get some more ideas about what the future holds by thinking about some of Google’s statements in other contexts. Last April, Slate reported that Google was obsessed with building the Star Trek computer. It’s a wonderful article that contains real insight into the way Google thinks about technology. Search is all about context: it’s not about the two or three words you type into the browser; it’s about understanding what you’re looking for, understanding your language rather than an arcane query language. The Star Trek computer does that; it anticipates what Kirk wants and answers his questions, even if they’re ill-formed or ambiguous. Let’s assume that Google can build that kind of search engine. Once you have the Star Trek computer doing your searches, the next step is obvious: don’t just do a search; get me the stuff I want. Find me my keys. Put the groceries away. Water the plants. I don’t think robotic helpers like these are as far off as they seem; most of the technologies we need to build them already exist. And while it may take a supercomputer to recognize that a carton of eggs is a carton of eggs, that supercomputer is only an Internet connection away.
But will we recognize these devices as robots once they’ve been around for a year or two? Or will they be “the finder,” “the unpacker,” “the gardener,” while robots remain implausibly futuristic? The latter, I think. Garden-variety text search, whether it’s Android or Siri, is an amazing application of artificial intelligence, but these days, it’s just something that phones do.
I have no doubt that Google’s robotics team is working on something amazing and mind-blowing. Should they succeed, and should that success become a product, though, whatever they do will almost certainly fade into the woodwork and become part of normal, everyday reality. And robots will remain forever in the future. We might have found Rosie, the Jetsons’ robotic maid, impressive. But the Jetsons didn’t.