Why Google bought a fleet of robots

WILL OREMUS
Last updated 13:38, December 19 2013
KILL ALL HUMANS? Boston Dynamics' Atlas robot. For what purpose is Google collecting robotics companies?
Boston Dynamics

KILL ALL HUMANS? Boston Dynamics' Atlas robot. For what purpose is Google collecting robotics companies?

Google just bought a fearsome fleet of robots.

The company confirmed a New York Times report that it has acquired Boston Dynamics, the Massachusetts-based maker of such noted mechanical beasts as BigDog, Atlas, Petman, Cheetah and Wildcat.

The company's robots are among the world's most advanced two- and four-legged machines. Some are humanoid, while others resemble predatory animals. Most have been developed under contract with military agencies, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.

What might Google want with an army of military robots? At first gasp, the answer might seem to be, "conquering the world".

But that doesn't seem to be the goal - at least, not in a military sense.

Google told the Times it will honour Boston Dynamics' existing contracts, including a US$10.8 million deal with DARPA to develop its Atlas prototype for potential humanitarian use in disasters like the Fukushima meltdown.

But Google added that it does not plan to become a military contractor itself.

Instead, my guess is that the company sees the development of physical robots as a natural extension of its core interest in artificial intelligence.

Google has been working for years on teaching machines to understand language, make sense of images and videos, and navigate real-world environments.

Now it will have a new set of toys - er, tools - on which to test out its machine-learning theories.

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Boston Dynamics, by the way, is the company's eighth robotics-related acquisition in the past year alone.

Will Oremus is the lead blogger for Slate's Future Tense, reporting on emerging technologies, tech policy and digital culture.  

 - Slate

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