Google robots: how they’ll take over the world

The Legged Squad Support Systems (LS3) are even more impressive – these“rough-terrain” robots carry loads of up to 400lbs, covering 20 miles in 24 hours. Computer-aided vision, terrain-sensing skills and GPS mean they can be sent on their own.

The infamous BigDog is the size of a “small mule”, and has much the same function: it carries heavy loads over varying terrain, such as snow, mud and rubble. The BigDog has four articulated legs that bend like an animal’s, can run at 4mph, and climbs hills of up to 35 degrees.

And Google now owns all these creepy toys. Nervous yet?

Military money

More alarming than robots that can hop their way into your bedroom or outrun Usain Bolt is the fact that they were developed with military money. Boston Dynamics’ creations aren’t actually killer robots, but they were designed to support soldiers in the field. The bulk of the company’s money appears to come from DARPA and the US Navy, Army and Marines.

Noel Sharkey, professor of AI and robotics at the University of Sheffield, notes that the humanoid robot Atlas was funded by DARPA for its own robot competition.

“This is ostensibly a challenge with a $2 million prize, to develop software to control the robot for a variety of tasks related to rescue,” he says. “But this seems to be a PR exercise. When did DARPA ever concern itself with rescue? There’s no doubt these developments are destined for the future battlefield.”

We shall have to wait until the contracts expire in three to five years to find out if the multimillion dollar contracts seduce Google further onto the dark side

Now that Google has bought Boston Dynamics, question marks hang over the military robots’ future. While Google has said that it doesn’t intend to be a military contractor, it will honour existing contracts. “We shall have to wait until the contracts expire in three to five years to find out if the multimillion dollar contracts seduce Google further onto the dark side,” says Sharkey.

However, signs suggest Google is happy to step away from military influence. The company recently bought another robotics firm called Schaft. Sharkey said “strong rumours” suggest Google removed Schaft’s robots from the DARPA rescue challenge.

“Given that the Schaft humanoid easily beat all the competition and won the last [challenge] hands down, it is giving up the opportunity for a lot of cash,” he said. “We shall have to wait and see, but I don’t think that Google will get into bed with the military to develop killer robots – it may well lose its slightly tarnished ‘Do no evil’ mantra.”

Robotic investment

Boston Dynamics was Google’s eighth purchase of a robotics firm in less than a year. Alongside Schaft, it picked up computer-vision firm Industrial Perception, camera-maker Bot & Dolly, robotic-wheel developer Holomni, and researchers Redwood Robotics, Meka and Autofuss.

Google then kicked off 2014 by acquiring DeepMind, a London-founded AI firm that uses learning algorithms for simulations, games and e-commerce. The purchase of such a firm makes sense for a search giant, which is always trying to improve how its systems understand what its users want. However, the DeepMind acquisition also fits into Google’s robotic ambitions, and follows its launch of the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab last year, alongside the hiring of leading researcher Ray Kurzweil in 2012.

“The advancement in AI will allow for meaningful changes in how robotics can be used,” explains IDC analyst Scott Strawn, pointing to existing robots such as the robot vacuum cleaner Roomba. “Their ability to manipulate their environment is limited, since we can’t provide them with the means by which they can think in the ways that would be required to be more useful.”

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