Bryan P. Carpender for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Google has been up to something.
First, Andy Rubin, the man behind Google’s Android smartphone revolution, unexpectedly stepped down from his post as Senior Vice President of Mobile and Digital Content this past March to take on a nebulous new role at the company, generating whispers and speculation.
Then it was recently revealed over the past six months, Google has been stealthily acquiring seven different technology firms in both the US and Japan – firms specializing in robotics.
Now, we’re beginning to get a glimpse at what Google has been up to; it is launching a new robotics effort. And handpicking the man who built the Android software to spearhead Google’s new “moonshot” attempt to create a new generation of robots is a virtual no-brainer.
Andy Rubin has built his career on his passion for robotics. He was a robotics engineer for German manufacturer Carl Zeiss before spending several years at Apple Computer in the 1990s, where he was originally a manufacturing engineer, developing interfaces and operating systems for mobile devices. He also co-founded the firm behind the T-Mobile Sidekick before co-founding Android Inc. in 2003, which received financial backing from Google after purchasing the firm in 2005.
His passion for building intelligent machines is no secret.
“I have a history of making my hobbies into a career,” Mr. Rubin told the New York Times. “This is the world’s greatest job. Being an engineer and a tinkerer, you start thinking about what you would want to build for yourself.”
In short: he’s the right man for the job. Plus, he comes with seventeen patents for his inventions, which should eradicate any doubts about his qualifications.
So now that Google has unveiled the man leading the new robotics project, we want to know what Google’s plans are. Not surprisingly, it is being very tight-lipped, refusing to give up any information regarding specific plans for the new venture, but it’s a safe bet that’s it’s more than a fleeting side project.
Regarding a specific timeline for the project, Rubin was circumspect, offering only this: “Like any moonshot, you have to think of time as a factor. We need enough runway and a 10-year vision.”
At this point, it’s likely the new project is skewing away from the direct consumer, instead focusing on opportunities in manufacturing and supply chain logistics – two areas providing huge opportunity, as they are not being served by existing robotic technologies, instead relying heavily on manual work with comparatively little automation.
“The opportunity is massive. There are still people who walk around in factories and pick things up in distribution centers and work in the back rooms of grocery stores,” says Andrew McAfee, a principal research scientist at the MIT Center for Digital Business, regarding the potential for Google’s new venture.
Rubin feels hardware has made technological advances, with issues such as mobility and moving hands and arms no longer being obstacles. However, he did acknowledge that areas including software and sensors still have a way to go, but he seems confident that such breakthroughs are forthcoming. He compared this new undertaking with the Google X self-driving car project, which began in 2009.
“The automated car project was science fiction when it started,” Rubin said. “Now it is coming within reach.”
Google has yet to determine if it will keep the effort inside the Googleplex or if it will give it its own separate identity by spinning it off into its own subsidiary. For now, the robotics team will be based in Palo Alto, California with offices in Japan.
The seven strategic acquisitions by Google include tech companies Schaft, a team of former Tokyo University roboticists making a humanoid robot; Meka, which makes robotic manipulators intended to work side by side with humans; Industrial Perception, a startup focusing on computer vision and robots capable of loading and unloading trucks; Redwood Robotics, a maker of robotic arms; and Holomni, which makes powered multi-directional caster wheels that can drive vehicles.
Also on the roster are Autofuss and its sister company, Bot & Dolly, whose robotic arms are used in cinema, most recently helping accomplish the stunning visuals in the film “Gravity” by controlling the camera with high precision and even automating part of the set.
While we await more details about Google’s robotics ambitions, we can rest assured that the new venture has the “thumbs-up” from the highest levels.
Google CEO Larry Page took to Google+ yesterday to publicly share his optimism: “I am excited about Andy Rubin’s next project. His last big bet, Android, started off as a crazy idea that ended up putting a supercomputer in hundreds of millions of pockets. It is still very early days for this, but I can’t wait to see the progress.”
Neither can we.