Developments in robotics are invariably met with one of two reactions; when some see humanoid robots acting independently and with dexterity, they see impressive progress. Others see advancements as a horrifying glimpse into an automated future, a world reminiscent of Terminator and other such dystopian visions. And when, in 2013, Google acquired terrifying and/or impressive robotics company Boston Dynamics, the world watched with apprehension.
The company’s robots have the capability to perform relatively complex tasks, run quickly and adjust when knocked to avoid toppling. It was the eighth robotics company Google bought in 2013, but was by far the most high-profile thanks to its videos displaying the capabilities of the bots, which range from humanoid to dog-like in shape and can perform a multitude of functions already. The image of a humanoid bot opening a door and traversing a snowy landscape may be enough to keep some up at night, but there’s no denying that the advancements ignite the imagination. Most have, unsurprisingly, been developed on military contracts, with Darpa (the Defence Advance Research Projects Agency) - who originally funded the development of the internet - partly footing the bill.
Google’s acquisition of Boston Dynamics was concerning for two reasons, though one is entirely more rational than the other. The first - and less rational - fear is that Google might somehow develop into a kind of Skynet-like overlord in the not-so-distant future, and that James Cameron’s predictions were just 20 years premature. It will take time for the public to warm to the concept of automation, particularly within the home or in the military. The more genuine concern, though, is that Google’s scope of ambition is unlike any company in history, and that the already all-powerful conglomerate could reach unprecedented levels of scale and influence. With ties to the military, Google’s collection of data raises some serious ethical concerns that the company would have to work dispel should they hold onto a company as high-profile as Boston Dynamics.
But Alphabet, Google’s parent company, aren’t convinced that Boston Dynamics has the potential to make substantial revenue in the coming years, and are looking to sell the company after just three years. Amazon and Toyota are said to be interested in taking over ownership after, according to TechCrunch, internal messages at Google revealed that the company is itself a little apprehensive about the robotics under development. ‘There’s excitement from the tech press, but we’re also starting to see some negative threads about it being terrifying, ready to take humans’ jobs,’ Google’s director of communications for Google X, Courtney Hohne, wrote in a private email attained by Bloomberg after it was copied onto a less private Google forum. ‘We don’t want to trigger a whole separate media cycle about where BD really is at Google. We’re not going to comment on this video because there’s really not a lot we can add, and we don’t want to answer most of the Qs it triggers.’ And more than a feeling of unease, they also cite the Massachusetts-based company as being difficult to work with, with Aaron Edsinger, Google’s director of robotics, saying that working with Boston Dynamics was ‘a bit of a brick wall.’
There are positives to automation, and some applications would be readily accepted by the public. A bot that could help the elderly, or perform menial tasks in the home, for example, would be a difficult development to argue against. But the involvement of a corporation as large as Google raises questions, and the internal unease within Google itself is revealing. The giants are bowing to the pressure of poor public reaction, just as they did in January when they quietly stopped selling Google Glass. Boston Dynamics will continue their work - they believe they have the answer to robotics - but Google will distance itself with a sale. With or without Alphabet, Boston Dynamics’ robots will continue their clunky steps toward application.