Google Paves the Way to a Robotic Future

Experts agree that the Boston Dynamics purchase is a big push for robotics.

December 16, 2013, 3:45 PM

Dec. 16, 2013— -- When Google acquired the robotics company Boston Dynamics, tech lovers worldwide started dropping the S-word: Skynet, a reference to the fictional artificial intelligence that nearly exterminated the human race in the "Terminator" movies.

Illah Nourbakhsh, author of "Robot Futures" and professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, chuckled and said that Google's purchase isn't going to lead to a robot apocalypse. "We're not going to have robots killing their human owners," he told ABC News. "But it is a big move."

It's not the first move that Google has made to beef up its newly founded robotics initiative. Throughout the year, Google has bought seven different companies that each specialize in a specific field, such as computer vision or mechanical arm movement. While analysts first suspected that Google would be using the robots to help with manufacturing, buying Boston Dynamics paints a different picture.

"Google hit a home run because Boston Dynamics makes complete, full-bodied androids," said Nourbakhsh. "It doesn't take a genius to read the tea leaves and see that Google is looking to bring robots out of the factory floors."

It seems that Google is playing the eccentric billionaire's card and investing in something it knows nothing about. "One way of looking at this is as a natural extension of search engines," said Vijay Kumar, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's a way to tie information and connect it to objects in the physical world. If I say 'Find me an interesting painting' to Google, someday, a robot could go around the Picasso museum and take a picture for me."

Nourbakhsh also sees Google's robots as the company's big push to break out of the digital world and enter the physical world. However, it still has plenty of obstacles to deal with. "They have to integrate all these companies and create hardware and software that plays ball with each other," he said. "That's a huge hurdle."

While Boston Dynamics is an expert at making robots that navigate tricky terrain, Kumar noted that there's more to a robot than just moving around. Humans "have this amazing ability to integrate different pieces of information, like vision and touch, and build a model of the world," he said. "Drinking a cup of coffee with your eyes closed isn't a sophisticated task for a person, but it's hard for a robot."

Google confirmed the acquisition with ABC News today, but declined to comment on the details of the deal, as well as what the first projects will be. Whatever it is, Nourbakhsh is confident that Google will make it happen in the near future.

"I don't think we'd have to wait more than five to eight years for some impressive first results," he said.

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