Why Robots Are Essential to Google’s Future

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Jim Wilson / The New York Times / Redux

Andy Rubin, the engineer leading Google’s efforts to develop robots, seen at his home in Los Altos Hills, Calif., in 2007.

Robots work tirelessly in factories, often around the clock, to churn out cars, computers and pack bags of cookies into boxes. They never complain, ask for breaks or demand bigger paychecks. In fact, robotic technology is advancing so quickly that machines are taking on a growing list of responsibilities once handled exclusively by humans. Over the past few years, they’ve started to help doctors with surgery, fetch products in warehouses and milk dairy cows.

Google is hoping to create robots that can take on even more responsibilities. Last week, the company disclosed that it acquired seven start-ups focused on robotics and that it was busy cobbling those pieces into a business, according to the New York Times.

Why would Google, which first gained fame with its search engine, push in robotics? Co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are big fans of futuristic projects, referred to inside the company as “moon shots.” After all, they have already taken on the challenge of building self-driving cars, a technology that is closely tied to robotics. But there is also another very big reason to invest in a new robot initiative: A big potential payday.

Global sales of robots are expected to grow 10.5 percent annually to $20.2 billion in 2016, according to the Freedonia Group, a market research firm. It’s a huge market with plenty of willing business customers, as long as they’re convinced that the cost of buying robots is cheaper and more efficient than leaving the work to humans.

Industrial robots have long been the source of most sales in the robotics industry. Their mechanical arms weld cars, assemble circuit boards and put labels on packages of food. Typically, such robots are bolted down and operated from within a protective cage to keep workers nearby from getting injured.

However, much of the expected growth in sales is expected to come from outside of factories with what’s known as service robots. They are mobile so that they can be quickly moved to where they’re needed and safe enough to work side-by-side with their human colleagues. Service robots have long been a dream in the robotics field. But improvements in technology have only recently made them feasible.

“The idea of putting robots and people together collaboratively is starting to become a big trend,” said Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation, the umbrella organization for three trade groups focused on different areas of robotics.

Service robots are already at doing the grunt work inside biomedical research labs. They’re also helping doctors make more precise incisions during surgery and defusing bombs for the military and law enforcement. Baxter, a robot from Rethink Robotics with a distinctly human-looking design, can pack cans of food off conveyer belts and inspect metal parts on the assembly line for defects. Meanwhile, Roomba, from iRobot, is an automated vacuum cleaner that resembles a metallic Frisbee.

Frank Tobe, publisher of The Robot Report, a news site focused on the robotics industry said a big opportunity for Google or any company lies with small and medium-sized businesses. It’s an area that is largely untapped because of the high cost of today’s robots and the complexities of programming them. “That’s the huge market and the kind of conceptual talent that Google brings to the table,” Tobe said. “What you need is for the robot to be easy enough to teach so that an enthusiastic worker can training it intuitively.”

Cheap robots could help the overall economy, as well, he said. No longer would companies have to send their jobs overseas because of cheaper wages. “One way to bring things back to the manufacturing facilities here is to be able to figure out how to do it with automation cheaply,” Tobe said.

Google’s effort to develop robots is led by Andy Rubin, the engineer who created the Android software for smartphones. Early in his career, he worked in robotics and remained keenly interested in the field.

In an online post last week, Page, Google’s chief executive, said of Rubin: “I am excited about Andy Rubin’s next project. His last big bet, Android, started off as a crazy idea that ended up putting a supercomputer in hundreds of millions of pockets. It is still very early days for this, but I can’t wait to see the progress.”

Google’s precise plan for its robot project remains vague, according to the New York Times. Manufacturing and logistics are among the areas of interest. Google could potentially put some of the technology to use in assembling its line of smartphones, tablets and laptop computers. It could also use robots – as Amazon does – in its warehouses to fill orders.

Based on the start-ups it acquired, Burnstein, the association president, suspects that Google plans to use robots for loading trucks and handling packages. Google is experimenting with a same-day shopping delivery service around San Francisco and it could use robots to automate parts of the process if it expands into more cities.

Of course, entering the robotics field from scratch has its challenges. A number of big established companies have dipped in their toes over the years only to later pull out or fail to gain much traction. IBM, GE and Microsoft are just a few of the examples. The robotics business simply didn’t develop as quickly as they thought it would.

“A small market for a big company like GM or GE isn’t worth chasing,” Burnstein said.