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Why you shouldn't be afraid of Google's new robots

Attendees visit the Android booth during the Google I/O developers conference at the Moscone Center on May 15, 2013 in San Francisco, California. The rumored partnership between Google and Audi would bring the operating system into cars.

Google buys tech companies the way teenagers buy t-shirts, so it’s not usually news when they do. But every now and then, a purchase grabs attention. That’s the case with its recent acquisition of Boston Dynamics, which makes robots that can run and climb, equal parts creepy and cool. It’s the latest of several robotics companies Google has swallowed up, which is making people wonder what Google has planned.

Google isn’t saying exactly what it wants to do with all these robot makers, so folks on the Internet have freaked out (most in jest, some seriously) about a dark future of Google-driven humanoid murder machines with Austrian accents. Those who actually work with robots for a living say there’s no need to fear.

“Some of these depictions from science fiction are just so far off in the future because I just see how hard it is to get a robot to do anything today,” says MIT robotics professor John Leonard.

One thing Boston Dynamics has been able to get a robot to do is run, fast. Some 15 million people have seen this YouTube video of a four-legged robot galloping like a big cat, while sounding like a Weedwacker. Mobile bots like it could help Google expand its mapping to areas its weird cars can’t reach.

“It makes perfect sense because you can drop these robots, let’s say on top of the mountains and they are collecting information,” explains Virginia Tech mechanical engineering professor Shashank Priya.

There are a couple common threads in many of the robot makers Google is swallowing up. Their creations go places and see stuff. That means bots gather lots of data, the food that nourishes Google’s profits. But other possibilities may be more intriguing.

“Robotics has been around for a couple of decades and has been making a lot of promises. And often people say, ‘Ok, so where are the robots?’” says Cornell University roboticist Hod Lipson.

Google may bring more robots into the lives of consumers. Down the road, it could use robots to deliver packages, help people find items around the house, even deliver in-home medical care. And if Google makes these robots, you can count on it scarfing down all the delicious data they find along the way.

 

Mark Garrison: Google isn’t saying exactly what it wants to do with all these robot makers, which naturally leads the Internet to freak out about a dark future of Google-driven humanoid murder machines with Austrian accents. MIT robotics professor John Leonard says, please, calm down.

John Leonard: Some of these depictions from science fiction are just so far off in the future because I just see how hard it is to get a robot to do anything today.

Here’s something the company Google just bought has been able to get a robot to do: run, fast. 15 million people have seen this YouTube video of a four-legged robot galloping like a big cat, while sounding like a Weedwacker. Virginia Tech mechanical engineering professor Shashank Priya says mobile bots could help Google expand its mapping to areas cars can’t reach.

Shashank Priya: It makes perfect sense because you can drop these robots, let’s say on top of the mountains and they are collecting information.

There are two common threads in many of the robot makers Google is swallowing up. Their creations go places and see stuff. That means bots gather lots of data, the food that nourishes Google’s profits. But Cornell roboticist Hod Lipson says other possibilities are more intriguing.

Hod Lipson: Robotics has been around for a couple of decades and has been making a lot of promises. And often people say, ‘Ok, so where are the robots?’

Down the road, Google could use robots to deliver packages, help people find stuff around the house, even deliver in-home medical care. And if Google makes these robots, you can count on it scarfing down all the delicious data they find along the way. I'm Mark Garrison, for Marketplace.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter and substitute host for Marketplace, based in New York.

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