Robots are a bit creepy. It's part of their intrigue, perhaps. The idea that humans could create something stronger and more intelligent than us is equal parts fascinating and terrifying. As with many technologies, most robotics research exists so we can create something that betters our lives in some way.
No single technology company may know this better than Google (GOOG -2.74%) (GOOGL -2.44%). The tech behemoth that organizes and delivers Internet content to us through Web searches has purchased eight robotics companies over the past two years.
Since the purchases, more information has surfaced of Google's plans. It's a mix of practical and fantastical -- and whether all of it comes to fruition or not, it's sure to change our lives.
Google's robotic stockpile
The set of companies now under Google's whimsy encompasses Bot & Dolly, Meka Robotics, Boston Dynamics, Holomni, Schaft, Redwood Robotics, Industrial Perception, Autofuss, and an artificial intelligence company called DeepMind. These names are likely completely unrecognizable to most people, save for maybe Schaft and Boston Dynamics.
Those two robot creators were the leading companies in the challenge from the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) challenge to make a robot that can assist humans in natural and man-made disasters
Google's acquisitions have given the company know-how in areas such as algorithms for controlling robotic movement, systems for controlling a robot's level of force, powerful hydraulic and electric robotics, omnidirectional robotic wheels, and machine vision.
All of that is great. But what does Google plan on doing with this knowledge?
Rethinking the assembly line, again
It seems that one of the first byproducts of Google's robotics acquisitions will be more efficient manufacturing processes. The Wall Street Journal reported in February that Google was in contact with Foxconn, which assembles Apple's iPhones and iPads, about using robots in the Taiwanese company's plants. More specifically, the article mentioned Google may be working on an operating system that robot makers would use in much the same way that smartphone makers rely on Google's Android OS.
There are potential upsides for Google in selling hardware or software robotics to other companies. As The Verge recently noted, the cost of automated labor compared to human labor fell 50% from 1990 to 2012.
Foxconn has experienced the increase in human labor costs itself and has been the center of more than a handful of inquiries, problems, and potential riots involving its more than 1 million-strong workforce. That may be why Foxconn talked with Google, and why it invested about $40 million in robotics for its new manufacturing plant in Pennsylvania.
The impact, good or bad, on the labor force and America's economy if robotics becomes prevalent in manufacturing is a debate for a different article. It would be easy to see the benefits and drawbacks for both sides.
Instead, we will examine what a robot-infested world might look light after they've dominated manufacturing and moved to more personal uses.
Bringing the bots home
As Extreme Tech cited earlier this month, "Google definitely got into the robot business to corner the home robot market early," noting that Schaft's robot can easily handle domestic challenges like stairs and ladders. It's a pretty bold statement, but there are more than a few reasons why this is very plausible.
First, there's some simple math that points to a growing need for robotic assistance in the near future. A recent Time magazine article referenced Harvard University research that said between 2015 and 2025, the number of U.S. households headed by people aged 70 or older will increase by 42%. The study noted that as we age, Americans unsurprisingly want to remain in their own homes.
In Japan, there's an even greater need. The country's population is aging faster than any other, and at the same time Japan faces a huge shortage of people to take care of its elderly. By 2025 an estimated 33% of Japan's population will be senior citizens, but there won't be enough people to care for them.
As both the U.S. and Japan face growing needs for additional assistance for the aging, the robotics industry is expected to take over some of these tasks. Giraff Technologies CEO Stephen Von Rump, whose company makes a telepresence robot for the elderly that can monitor their activity, believes the market for robots and other technologies for taking care of senior citizens will by 2016 reach $17.4 billion in Europe and $19.4 billion in U.S.
While it's hard to predict demand for robotics, Allied Market Research thinks the entire robotics market will be worth $41.17 billion by 2020. That suggests Google's robotic ambitions can grow far beyond elderly care. And it's already well on its way.
Less than two years ago, Google hired the famous futurist, innovator, and inventor Ray Kurzweil as its director of engineering. His name may not be known in general circles, but people like Bill Gates certainly know him. In the sleeve of Kurzweil's 2005 book, The Singularity Is Near, the Microsoft co-founder is quoted as saying Kurzweil is "the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence."
A profile in The Guardian last February noted that Kurzweil only has a one-line job description at Google: to bring natural language understanding to Google.
Reporter Carole Cadwalladr wrote in the article that Google one day will know the answer to your question before you ask it. "It will have read every email you've ever written, every document, every idle thought you've ever tapped into a search-engine box. It will know you better than your intimate partner does. Better, perhaps, than even yourself," he wrote.
That is certainly a bit unnerving. But the goal Kurzweil is working toward is to make artificial intelligence systems understand what humans say, and put it into context like other humans do. Kurzweil said in the article that when IBM's Watson computer went on Jeopardy, it won by reading all of Wikipedia to get some of the answers it needed. But he plans to go even further by helping computers understand books, articles, Web pages, and other materials as they read them, just as a human would.
This goes beyond the scope of a Google premonition tool that knows what you'll search for before you search for it. It's about Google creating an artificial intelligence that can understand complex language. For Kurzweil, it's about creating a computer consciousness. In an interview with Wired, he said, "And that doesn't just mean logical intelligence. It means emotional intelligence, being funny, getting the joke, being sexy, being loving, understanding human emotion. That's actually the most complex thing we do. That is what separates computers and humans today. I believe that gap will close by 2029."
Not everyone is as optimistic about artificial intelligence. Tesla Motors CEO and co-founder Elon Musk tweeted over the weekend:
Worth reading Superintelligence by Bostrom. We need to be super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 3, 2014
With the help of Google's robotics and artificial intelligence projects, more robots may soon be among us soon, manufacturing most of our products, reminding us to take our medicine, and possibly carrying on intelligent conversations with us. Just don't be too vocal about your robotic apprehensions in the comments -- they may be reading this one day.