Big Dog, Wild Cat, Cheetah... all names one wouldn't associate with Google (if anything perhaps feline-named Apple operating systems). And yet, the company that is best know for its internet prowess and having more data about the search habits and private interests of each and every computer user than the NSA could ever dream of, is ever more aggressively moving into the animal kingdom. The robotic one that is.
After last weekend, 60 Minutes ran an amusing infomercial of Amazon's latest very forward multiple boosting product development with its delivery drones, Google refuses to lag behind in the futurism department and promptly acquired Boston Dynamics, the creator of the world's fastest running robot, as well as various other realistic animal-like machines supplied to the US military. As the FT reports, "The internet company’s acquisition of Boston Dynamics is latest in a string of robotics acquisitions in a mysterious initiative led by former Android chief Andy Rubin."
Just what robotic critters will carry Google's logo?
Among the creations to crawl, jump and gallop from its labs are Big Dog, a four-legged robot that can clamber over uneven terrain such as snowy forests, even when assailed by kicks from its makers, and Cheetah, which claims to hold the record for the fastest legged robot in the world, running at more than 29 miles per hour.
Many of Boston Dynamics’ robots have been developed with funding from the US Department of Defense’s research unit, Darpa, making Google a military contractor, at least for now.
Google’s ultimate objective for its growing collection of robots remains unclear but Mr Rubin’s project sits among its so-called “moonshot” ventures, such as self-driving cars and balloons to provide internet connectivity to remote regions.
His other acquisitions include Bot & Dolly, a design studio that makes an automated camera system used in movies such as Gravity, and Schaft, a spin-off from the University of Tokyo whose bipedal robots boast much stronger “muscles” than other bots.
Boston Dynamics was founded in 1992 by Marc Raibert, formerly of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A much-viewed YouTube video shows Boston Dynamics’ four-legged WildCat robot “galloping” and “bounding” around a car park at speeds of 16 miles per hour, before – perhaps reassuringly – falling to its knees on ice.
The response has so far been one of mild amusement: "Which company that owns all our private data and has the motto “Don’t Be Evil” just bought a military robotics firm?” tweeted Joe Randazzo, creative director at Adult Swim, a comedy and satire channel. "‘Don’t be evil,’ he cried, while being chased by the robot hounds," quipped Andy Baio, a tech entrepreneur and founder of the XOXO conference, in a tweet.
One can only hope that in borrowing some robotic folklore from Isaac Asimov, the prime directive of Google's robotic farm will indeed be "don't be evil" or else the amusement will be short-lived.
A quick summary of Google's latest robotic product portfolio: