In just over a month, Google has successfully made massive offers to purchase Boston Dynamics, Nest and DeepMind. (Not to mention seven more robotics firms in the past seven months.) Google's recent spate of major acquisitions in the robotics, home automation and artificial intelligence sectors, respectively, has people buzzing about just what the search giant is up to.
The company could easily be interested in simply owning a major stake in those businesses. But, save for Nest, these companies are focused more on research and platforms than products.
Most of the talent acquired through these purchases will be overseen by former Android chief Andy Rubin's robotics department within Google X, the company's semi-secret research arm behind its driverless car and Google Glass. And if those two projects are any indication, this is about something far more ambitious than a Wi-Fi thermostat.
Automating industry: boring and dangerous
Rubin recently told The New York Times that robot manufacturing and delivery is one of Google's "moonshot" ideas. If true, Google could stand to make quite a lot of money in providing businesses around the globe with automated assembly and shipping solutions. (On the other hand, Amazon stands to save a ton with its delivery drones.)
In the next few decades, that could mean an end to the grisly human labor practices that bring us new iPhones and Kindles every year. But at what cost? Swapping overworked human laborers with tireless robots might eliminate the concern for the blood, sweat and tears that go into our fancy gadgets, but what are those people to do for work now?
Introducing automatons into the workforce at scale could be disastrous for the global economy, eliminating hundreds of thousandsâ€“if not millionsâ€“of jobs. In fact, it's already happening at a little factory we know as Foxconn.
Google's intent to automate industry may be noble at heart, but the issue is more delicate and complex than that. Besides, there are far more interesting (and slightly more innocuous) fields for Google to enter with its new stable of first-class engineers.
The Jetsons life is the life for me
Robotic assistants are already everywhere. Look at what Japanese firms have already accomplished with products like Honda's Asimo. But this helpful little robots are nowhere near where they could be, and Google is uniquely positioned to blow this category wide open.
Imagine a robot assistant that wasn't just able to serve you meals or go outside to grab the paper, but one that was connected to your Wi-Fi network. Now, imagine that your thermostat, security system, and other appliances were connected to that network. Finally, envision a robot equipped with the most advanced voice recognition that's also able to learn.
Now, you're looking at an assistant that can perform an unlimited number of tasks and interface with your entire connected home by just asking it like you would a friend or loved one. "OK, Google Bot, turn up the heat a bit?" The implications for the elite are obvious: More fancy toys to control their other fancy toys. But think of what this means for other fields.
Google Bot: your new caretaker
An intelligent, connected robotic assistant could transform assisted living communities and nursing homes. With the basics already taken care of, caretakers could better focus on fostering better connections and dealing with more serious issues with patients or clients rather than running around tuning thermostats, serving meals and changing bedpans.
Forget Life Alert. With such a helper, the elderly could continue living in their homes while their family members get much-needed peace of mind. Unfortunately, employing robots in any sort of capacity means human jobs are lost. At the very least, this would eliminate fewer jobs than, say, automating entire assembly lines and delivery services.
The two realities about robots: jobs and security
This is the reality: No matter how slowly it happens, a considerable portion of human labor will likely be replaced by technologically-advanced, automated solutionsâ€“or robots. It might not happen in our lifetime, but it almost certainly will during our childrens' lives. Hopefully, for their sake, an economic model is instated to support such a drastic shift.
Here's the other: If you think security is a concern now with your arguably "dumb" devices, it's likely only to get worse when connected robots and homes are thrown into the mix. The more aspects of our lives become connected, the more avenues there are through which to harm us. Not to sound like a doomsayer, but this is already the case.
The momentum toward a robot-ridden future has only grown stronger despite these obvious hurdles. So, the least that companies like Google can do is introduce the technology in ways that familiarize society with it and destroy the least amount of jobs. Google robots in the home (or nursing home) could be just the thing.