Google robots: how they’ll take over the world

Google. It’s on your PC and your phone; it’s always with you in pockets and bags.

It will soon be embedded in watches and glasses, too, while partnerships with Audi, Honda and Hyundai mean that Android will be powering the dashboard in your car. Google is already stretching its tendrils into the offline world, with military-grade robots, healthcare and sensors dotted around people’s homes.

So are we sleepwalking towards a dystopian future of corporate control, or an age of AI-powered convenience? Is it too late to stop Google taking over the world, even if we wanted to? Should we be just a tiny bit scared?

Android acquisitions

Such questions have long followed Google, raised by its dominance of internet search – the gateway through which most of us access the web – and cemented by the success of its mobile OS, Android.

Long as we’ve asked these questions, Google – which wouldn’t comment for this article – still has the ability to surprise, raising eyebrows with a succession of recent investments and acquisitions.

Much of the billions of dollars it’s spent on its “moon shots” – the futuristic research it conducts, without necessarily having plans for a product– have stayed out of the headlines.

This all changed, however, with Google’s purchase of Boston Dynamics in December: a robotics firm that works for the US military and is famous for its YouTube videos of impressive but creepy creations.

Take the Cheetah, the world’s fastest robot. It can hit speeds of more than 29mph thanks to an articulated spine, which gives it flexibility and lets it lengthen its stride in the same way as the big cat. So far, though, it’s limited to running on the treadmill in Boston Dynamics’ lab.

The next version, WildCat, “is designed to operate untethered”, a thought likely to send a shiver down anyone’s articulated spine.

There’s also the SandFlea, a small, flat device with four large wheels that looks like a toy – until you see it leap up and over a building. It can jump 30ft in the air, land and reposition itself, and jump again, hopping up and over walls and homes. “That is high enough to jump over a compound wall, onto the roof of a house, up a set of stairs or into a second-storey window,” Boston Dynamics says.

If robotic cheetahs and a gravity-defying hopper aren’t enough to set your imagination spinning into sinister sci-fi scenarios, then consider Boston Dynamics’ two anthropomorphic robots.

The Petman simulates soldiers’ movements in order to test protective clothing; watching the video of its movements is like viewing an odd, interpretive dance routine.

This robot is limited to the lab, but the Atlas is a “high-mobility, humanoid robot” that covers rough ground on two legs, and can climb and use tools. “Atlas is strong and co-ordinated enough to climb using hands and feet, to pick its way through congested spaces,” Boston Dynamics says.

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