Why does Google need robots? Because it already rules your pocket. The mobile market, except for the slow rise of wearables, is saturated. There are millions of handsets around the world, each one connected to the Internet and most are running either Android or iOS. Except for incremental updates to the form, there will be few innovations coming out of the mobile space in the next decade.
Then there’s Glass. These devices bring the web to the real world by making us the carriers. Google is already in front of us on our small screens but Glass makes us a captive audience. By depending on Google’s data for our daily interactions, mapping, and restaurant recommendations – not to mention the digitization of our every move – we become some of the best Google consumers in history. But that’s still not enough.
Google is limited by, for lack of a better word, meat. We are poor explorers and poor data gatherers. We tend to follow the same paths every day and, like ants, we rarely stray far from the nest. Google is a data company and needs far more data than humans alone can gather. Robots, then will be the driver for a number of impressive feats in the next few decades including space exploration, improved mapping techniques, and massive changes in the manufacturing workspace.
Robots like Baxter will replace millions of expensive humans – a move that I suspect will instigate a problematic rise of unemployment in the manufacturing sector – and companies like manufacturing giant Foxconn are investing in robotics at a clip. Drones, whether human-control or autonomous, are a true extension of our senses, placing us and keeping us apprised of situations far from home base. Home helpers will soon lift us out of bed when we’re sick, help us clean, and assist us near the end of our lives. Smaller hardware projects will help us lose weight and patrol our streets. The tech company not invested in robotics today will find itself far behind the curve in the coming decade.
That’s why Google needs robots. They will place the company at the forefront of man-machine interaction in the same way that Android put them in front of millions of eyeballs. Many pundits saw no reason for Google to start a mobile arm back when Android was still young. They were wrong. The same will be the case for these seemingly wonky experiments in robotics.
Did Google buy Boston Dynamics and seven other robotics companies so it could run a thousand quadrupedal Big Dogs through our cities? No, but I could see them using BD’s PETMAN, a bipedal robot that can walk and run over rough terrain – to assist in mapping difficult-to-reach areas. It could also become a sort of Google Now for the real world, appearing at our elbows in the form of an assistant that follows us throughout the day, keeping us on track, helping with tasks, and becoming our avatars when we can’t be in two places at once. The more Google can mediate our day-to-day experience the more valuable it becomes.
Need more proof? Follow the money. Robotics is big business and analysts estimate that Boston Dynamics could be a $5 billion company in the next few years. With the right contracts and the right product mix, almost any of member Google’s current robot horde can hit nearly any market, from consumer robotics on a large scale to massive installations in manufacturing – not to mention those lucrative DARPA contracts.
Will we see RoboGooglers wandering through Palo Alto this year? No way. It’s far too early. But with a bit of smarts from Google Chauffeur, the software running the company’s self-driving cars, and some better bipedal robot designs I could see Sergey and Larry standing beside their robotic assistants within the decade. Now all they have to do is make them sentient.