In the past year alone the internet search and advertising giant has acquired eight robotics companies. The last being Boston Dynamics – makers of the kind of heavy-duty military application hardware one normally associates with science fiction films. One of their flag ship products is Big Dog, a large (3’ long and 2’ 6” tall) beast of a robot weighing in at 108kg, but capable of carrying another 150kg whilst it runs up slopes to 35 degree angles, crosses running water, snow & ice, rubble and even muddy forest trails, correcting itself should it fall over.
Boston Mechanics is engaged in developmental work for DARPA, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, the organization variously suspected of a variety of unorthodox military research programs and sometimes credited with developing the Internet itself. Do we need to worry that Google is building a robot army and we should start watching the Terminator films a little more closely? Not just yet, but it is a telling sign that this visionary company sees a big future in robotic development. It’s not long since Amazon announced plans, perhaps only half-seriously, to look into using drones for parcel deliveries direct to our doors. No mention was made of how they’d handle a 6th floor flat. But it is certainly true that we should expect a dramatic increase in the use of sophisticated robots in our daily lives.
For years now we’ve had planes that can fly themselves and cars that can at least park themselves, if not handle almost all that the busy urban streets can throw at them. Are we ready to interact with the digital world via a human form robot that’s stronger, quicker, more agile and frankly more reliable and dependable than a human being? Advances in human language translation and parsing, multi-processor networking capabilities, three-dimensional spatial awareness and path finding are leading us inexorably towards a machine that will be able to out-perform a human in many environments and situations and this machine will likely have an operating system called Android and will likely look disturbingly like us.
In the hands of any other company, one might be more sceptical but one of the keys to Google’s phenomenal success has been their ability to spot emerging opportunities and markets. What (or who) better to tackle fires in dangerous buildings, or perform maintenance operations in hazardous industrial environments? Would you prefer machines like this to be fighting our battles instead of our own people? Would you trust a machine to carry deadly firepower and the authority to use it? Or more importantly trust the software designers behind its thought routines. Several nations have declared their intention to send a manned mission Mars in the next 2 decades. Given the formidable problems that are introduced when this means sending humans, increasingly the question is going to be, will the first footprints on Mars be human?