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Google is hoarding robots. Here’s what they may be planning.

Google has acquired eight robotics companies this year. (Marcus Brandt/EPA)

Just when it seemed like Amazon’s concept for a drone-powered fleet of quadricopters for Amazon Prime Air was going to be the most outlandish idea of the year from the tech sector, along comes the news that Google just acquired Boston Dynamics, the company best known for creating DARPA Atlas robots and “creepy galloping robots” like the BigDog and the Wild Cat. What the heck is going on here?

It would be easy to think that this move was just another bit of Silicon Valley-style one-upmanship, this time between Google CEO Larry Page and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. By acquiring a robotic animals company with just days to go before the world settles in for the winter holidays, Google gets the final say for the year and cements its reputation as being one of the most innovative companies in the world.

Except that robotics appears to be a very serious initiative at Google rather than something announced after repeated viewings of the “60 Minutes” drones segment with Jeff Bezos. Boston Dynamics is the eighth robotics company acquired by Google this year, with other companies acquired involved in similar activities – including robots capable of loading and unloading delivery trucks. One company bought by Google, Bot & Dolly, makes a robotic camera system that was used to film Clooney and Bullock in “Gravity,” Alfonso Cuaron’s remarkable film about outer space.

The head of the new robotics division at Google is Andy Rubin, the same person who spearheaded the development of the Android operating system at Google. Rubin himself has a personal interest in robotics and tweeted out that “the future is looking awesome!” just after Google bought Boston Dynamics. It now appears that Rubin took on robotics as another “moonshot” business for Google, the same way that driverless cars were a “moonshot” business.

So the conventional wisdom that Google’s robots would be factory drone-workers, assembling things such as Android phones and then delivering them door-to-door to customers, doesn’t seem to make sense. You don’t need a WildCat running at 40 mph to do that. That’s like bringing a gun to a knife fight.

So if not for a drones-inspired initiative, what could Google’s robotic menagerie possibly be for?

Remember – Google’s mission statement is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” So here’s another – admittedly outlandish – idea. Google is using these robots as literal foot soldiers in the race to organize the world’s information.

These robots, once they’ve been outfitted with cameras, could be sent anywhere in the world as part of a new Google Maps initiative. It would essentially be Google StreetView without the cars. Or, perhaps Google’s driverless cars would drop off the robotic dogs and cats at the edge of a mountain range or arctic glacier and wait for them to come back after trudging around for awhile.

Another scenario is that these robotic animals could help to bring Internet access to remote locations. Remember the Google Loon project, which would use helium balloons to bring Internet connectivity to hard-to-reach locales? Well, what about a network of robots connected with WiFi routers that are able to go anywhere, do anything, to bring the wireless Internet to every single corner of the globe?

That’s why it doesn’t make sense that Google would try to do something that doesn’t fit into a longer-term strategy, such as creating some kind of vast cyborg army just for the lulz. Once you hook up Google’s Android army to Ray Kurzweil’s artificial intelligence initiatives at Google, though, watch out. The future appears to be one of hyper-intelligent computing machines that are the physical and mental equals of humans, capable of going anywhere on the planet. (Or perhaps into outer space as in the film “Gravity”)

The innovation ball is now back in Amazon’s court. Google has shown us once again that no idea is too big, no idea is too outlandish, if you want to be considered the most innovative company in the world. That’s what the Big Dogs do, they go big or they go home.

Google added more pieces to its growing toolbox of robotics late last week with the purchase of Boston Dynamics, a military contractor known for its animal-like robots. (Reuters)

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.



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