Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Google: just call us "U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men"

Just taking a brief interlude in my macro-innovation series, but this is an important breaking story.

It has been all over the press recently that Google is buying robotics companies. This of course has led to the now common speculative pieces, whenever Google does anything unexpected: What is Google Up To?

There is good coverage on the BBC website of the latest move. a robot that does not fall easily.

If the video below doesn't work go here.

Robotics for making stuff - maybe, but you don't need humanoid technology for that. You need more advanced versions of the industrial robots we already have - except ones with fine motor movements. Delivering parcels - not likely, what's wrong with a person for that task? The economics don't seem to add up for that one. No I think there is something bigger, grander in mind.

So my guess is as good as anybody else's right? So here is my take.

Google wants to be the first 21st Century corporation. Not just incrementally twiddle this or that or even disrupt the status quo. I think they want to disrupt disruption. These are guys and they are mostly guys that have read science fiction and they want to be 'that' kind of company. As huge as the digital economy is, life is still the interaction of stuff in meat space. We live in homes, we need transport, we need food and metals etc etc. I think Google understands the future is the intersection of digital and hard technologies.

Key executives in Google are personally investing in off-planet mining opportunities and presumably research. What to you need to get involved in those kind of heavy duty activities - robots. If NASA really does get serious about Mars, companies are going to be lining up to provide technologies (read Red Mars). Google with is growing suite of technologies could be an important player. Robotics, autonomous vehicles - what they don't have is the engineering companies yet. Before you get to outer space, undersea mining is opening up as an important near term opportunity - robotics again. Both applications undersea and off-planet are seriously dangerous/difficult and costly for humans, but the human body is remarkably well designed for difficult and dexterous tasks. Humanoid robots will be well suited to these kinds of tasks.

Think of Google as the next Apple/GM/GE.

If this is their strategy, their challenge, alongside those companies that have gone down this path before them, is the valley between today's costs and future profits. Will the timelines of markets and technology merge with elegant synchronicity, or will the technologies still take too long and be more costly than expected. Google is has waited for the technologies to mature, has it waited long enough?