Andy Rubin's next Google moonshot project: Robots

The former Android leader is in charge of one of Google's "moonshots," an effort to use robots to free humans from drudgery.

Schaft humanoid robot
One of the small robotics firms that Google has acquired is Schaft, a Japanese company focusing on a humanoid robot. Schaft

When Andy Rubin handed leadership of the Android project to Sundar Pichai , the speculation began about what Rubin would be doing next for Google.

Now we know: robots.

In an interview with The New York Times on Wednesday, Rubin said his robotics project is at the heart of one of Google's long-term, big-deal "moonshot" programs that also have included self-driving cars and Google Glass.

"Like any moonshot, you have to think of time as a factor. We need enough runway and a 10-year vision," Rubin said.

Google has acquired seven robotics companies to get a head start, but at least for now, the scope is relatively limited, focusing on manufacturing, the Times reported.

Andy Rubin
Andy Rubin James Martin/CNET

Still, Chief Executive Larry Page wasn't afraid to raise expectations about Rubin's work. "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," Page said in a Google+ post.

Manufacturing is an industry where robots already become a major presence; robots weld car frames and precisely place windshields, for example. But as evidenced by the splash Amazon made Sunday by revealing its plans for aerial drones for package delivery , there's a lot more that can be done with technological automation.

As with some other Google moonshots, the project combines both hardware and software. Silicon Valley's decades of history began with hardware makers and shifted gradually to software companies, but Google has become a company that handles both, building its own servers and data centers and Motorola phones and writing its own software. Handling both bits and atoms can be helpful when it's time to pioneer a new industry where neither the hardware or software are mature.

"We're building systems, so one team will be able to understand the whole stack," Rubin told the Times.

Bot & Dolly, a company that focuses on robots used for cinema camera movement in films such as "Gravity," is another Google acquisition.
Bot & Dolly, a company that focuses on robots used for cinema camera movement in films such as "Gravity," is another Google acquisition. Bot & Dolly

The companies that Google has acquired include Schaft, a team of former Tokyo University roboticists making a humanoid robot; Industrial Perception, a startup focusing on computer vision and robots that can load and unload trucks; Meka, which makes robotic manipulators intended to work side by side with humans; Redwood Robotics, a maker of robotic arms; Bot & Dolly, whose robotic arms are used in cinema, including the movie "Gravity"; a sister company called Autofuss; and Holomni, which makes powered caster wheels that can drive vehicles.

Using robots to assemble electronics, package products, and move products through warehouses could be a big deal economically, as the legions of Foxconn smartphone assemblers and Amazon packers can attest. Those jobs already are about as close as you can get to being cogs in a machine. Freeing those workers, of course, would mean they'd have to find work elsewhere -- a common plight in the history of technology.

But don't be surprised if Google has grander ambitions for robotics than manufacturing, packaging, and transportation. Google likes to apply technology where it can make a difference, but it also has a history of trying to be a direct force in consumers' lives, as in projects like search, Android, and self-driving cars. So maybe one day a Google robot will walk out the factory and warehouse doors and into the wider world.

 

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