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Google Puts Boston Dynamics Up for Sale in Robotics Retreat (bloomberg.com)
830 points by doener on March 17, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 387 comments

Robotics, particularly without the gov't pig trough, needs a visionary and a long game point.

Andy Rubin was a visionary and he bailed.

He left Apple to found Danger which was one of the "genesis" products that led to the smartphone era. (1)

He made the next huge leap with Android and almost failed until Google showed up to help him fully execute his vision under their stewardship.

After Android became a very mature business in its own right what to do with the visionary founder?

The article states that "Page is interested in robots" - can you imagine if Larry Page came to you and said "Hey how about you literally build robots all day. You could be Tony Stark and here's $100m to get you started. We'll change the world!"

It's a hard to turn down offer, Rubin accepted and tried to recapture the magic pursuing somebody else's vision. But it's damn tough to be a founder / visionary under somebody else's thumb, especially when you're set for life financially.

That's a story that never works out, but is played out again and again in technical acquisitions as big organizations attempt to find a place for founders.

(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danger_(company)

(2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_mergers_and_acquisitio...

It's my understanding the Andy has always been a Robotics geek even dated as far back as his days a Danger. So I find it hard to believe the argument that Andy has to be coerced into perusing a Robotics vision that he had no passion for.

I can confirm this. I worked with Andy at General Magic, and I later worked at Danger, Inc. (but after Andy had left). Andy was building robots the entire time. The early Danger office had several robots that Andy had built for fun.

His wikipedia article says that his first job was as a robotics engineer at Carl Zeiss for three years.

Someone pointed out he already worked in a company making robots for three years.

Well, maybe that's even why Android is called "Android".

Apple engineers nick named Andy as 'Android' and he choose that name for his mobile OS (android)

What an amazing piece of trivia! Thank you for that.

I wonder if that was a Star Trek reference

I thought its a Blade Runner reference because Google's reference phones are called Nexus: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Replicant

What's the reference?

Commander Data, the android

Pretty sure it's because Andy = Android...

That's exactly as tenuous as thinking "Robby" must be a reference to Doctor Who, which featured a bunch of robots named the Daleks.

Danger's name itself is a Lost in Space reference.

Robotics powered by AI might very well be the next frontier of innovation, at least I think Andy Rubin believes it. [1]

Ex-Head of Google China (before Google's retreat from China), Dr. Kai-Fu Lee visited silicon valley last month and wrote a piece [2] of about the trends he saw during his trip. One of the things Dr. Lee mentioned was Andy's new startup Playground will have a huge impact on making Robotics mainstream is what Android has done to make smart mobile phones mainstream. Let's see how soon that wave is coming.

[1] http://www.wired.com/2016/02/android-inventor-andy-rubin-pla...

[2] http://www.techsite.io/p/274598

"Robotics powered by AI might very well be the next frontier of innovation"

The next, and the last.

>Robotics, particularly without the gov't pig trough, needs a visionary and a long game point.

There's a massive opportunity for a startup to move towards the personal/home robot market and make a killing, without any government help nor without some fabled visionary type person.

Google sought what were essentially military robots from BD. Those machines, if ever turned into a product, would have been tens of millions of dollar each. They make no sense and google cannot solve the problem of loud servos/actuators and the relatively low power density of battery technology. Heck, some BD demos I've seen run on gas engines. When the DoD is your customer, the last thing you want to sell them is a tool that'll give away their soldiers' positions.

I've seen ROS projects on commodity hardware that's 75% of the way to a decent home robot. I think this is doable within the next 10 years. Having a home robot will be like having a smartphone today. We'll wonder how we got along without them. Hell, I'm half-tempted to get into this field myself.

Everything about robots from these big companies has been "big picture" bullshit; big spending, big PR releases, big promises, untried tech, and sadly lots of questionable patent filing sprees. None of these big companies are interested in making a real affordable product it seems, or believe it to be too difficult or unprofitable. Its like they're trying to sell mainframes in 1980 and the PC Jr, Commodore64, Apple //, etc are soon going to eat their lunch. The big iron approach failed in computing the same way its failing in robotics.

>> The big iron approach failed in computing

If you mean 'failed' as in 'is widely used by all major financial organisations and thousands of businesses besides', sure, big iron failed.

In the consumer space, which is what we're all talking about, right? Unless by 'robots' you mean giant arms that put cars together, but that's 1970s technology there.

Gates/Jobs couldn't sell you a basement mainframe with a house full of terminals, and for good reason.

Gates/Jobs couldn't sell you a basement mainframe with a house full of terminals, and for good reason.

One of the points Woz made in his recent AMA at Reddit was that the mainframes have won, pretty much decisively. As everything moves into the cloud, what we think of as computers -- from our watches to our phones to our laptops and desktops -- are really just terminals.

What's a Web browser, after all, if not a highly evolved time-sharing terminal?

Eh, you said "in computing". I didn't catch the "consumer" context there.

You can't think of any context in which a consumer relies on a server somewhere?

Hell, every time you use some -AAS or 'The Cloud', you're basically using big iron.

IMO robots are asics. Robots are single purpose objects that do one thing well.

The cost of making a system that works under many pretences scales exactly the same as making software that works for any set of criteria.

Shit just doesn't happen.

You're living a pipe dream.

Wait 15 years and maybe. For now, revel that we're advanced enough to automate one task.

> IMO robots are asics.

In case anyone else wanted to know:


Some humble things I can imagine a robot doing:

- Mow my lawn

- Stain my deck

- Paint my walls

- Roof my house

- Spread moss killer on my roof

- Clean my gutters

- Spray Raid into hornet nests

- Hunt down and destroy dandelions

Maybe some of these I buy it, and others the painters/roofers buy it. But it seems like there is a lot of opportunity here as hardware prices fall.

What's the killer app that single-handedly gets you to fork over $30k for a reliable robot?

The "robot app store" idea alone has never worked for driving adoption... even smart phones originated with phone calls.

I don't want a robotic domestic servant, I want my existing appliances to take on more responsibility.

I'd pay a few extra thousand for a car that drives itself, or a closet washer/dryer that automatically washes, folds, and stores my clothes, or a fridge that can make basic meals, or a vacuum that cleans my house while I'm out.

Maybe a humanoid robot that does these things will exist one day, but I'd rather have a home that does all these things frictionlesly than share my space with a robot.

> washer/dryer that automatically washes, folds, and stores my clothes

This would sell like hotcakes. Perhaps clothes would need some sort of an RFID tag built in to identify their specs (not sure the cost on that) but I would gladly pay a couple grand for a dryer that folds clothes.

It might be enough to include a cheap spectrometer to estimate the material composition. From this you should be able to guesstimate a suitable program. You could even spot and classify stains, AI to the rescue. There must be existing solutions for large scale industrial laundry handling.

A robotic closet that lets you wear your favorite shirt every day... fresh and clean.

This might well be what we're looking for: http://www.techtimes.com/articles/93169/20151008/washing-mac...

Neato or irobot will sell you a robot vacuum.

If you are replacing a bunch of employees, then a house painting company or roofing company might pay $30k. For that price I think it's going to be sold to a company that earns money with it.

Another thing I left off my initial list: surely agriculture must have tons of uses for robotics, with enough scale to justify higher prices.

Turns out you can already lease humanoids for just a couple hundred a week to perform agricultural tasks. It'd be pretty hard to undercut that price.

And a robot that even 50% as adaptable as a human is to teh environment is a long way enough

>surely agriculture must have tons of uses for robotics, with enough scale to justify higher prices.

Agriculture apparently already uses robots https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2015/06/22...

> even smart phones originated with phone calls.

Sure, but they didn't become a must-have item in every pocket until the App Store came along. There was a big jump between selling 500,000 'smart phones'/yr and selling 500,000 per hour...

Blackberry was doing well before app stores.

>What's the killer app that single-handedly gets you to fork over $30k for a reliable robot?

It would have to be absolutely required for your life at that price. The car is the closest to this given that price point and many people forgo that, so I can't think of anything that you would absolutely need a robot for.

Exactly... I've looked at a lot of these opportunities -- see profile! I mean, I did my PhD on in-home healthcare robots!

There are a few good applications in healthcare that can (and do!) justify the expense of current robots. Still, it's often easier to target concentrations of people where you can cost-share a robot (eg. nursing homes) rather than operating in individual homes. But problems in nursing homes abound too: abysmal connectivity (no WiFi!), antiquated enterprise sales; excessive regulatory costs (FDA), etc.

Maybe costs will come down... but most "good" applications require manipulation, which makes a "general purpose" robot much more expensive than an autonomous car's sensor suites.

A highly reliable, rock solid robot nanny would easily fetch 30k and sell millions. This must be, what, at least a century away? I'm probably venturing into Jetsons territory here...

That's an AGI level capabilities in a robot that would have to not-exceed human strength levels (so they don't accidentally crush the baby) and I don't even know if it's worth discussing.

Backyard farming and cooking.

At $30k it's not going to happen.

At $3k it's in the range of expensive hobby equipment or gardening machinery, so people might start buying them to show off if it's even slightly useful.

The first iPhone was actually pretty bad at making calls... the internet/email in your pocket was the killer app there.

Were they? You could get internet and email on blackberry and nokia phones before the iphone came along. I think what drove iphone sales (besides the apple brand) was the futuristic look of only having one large screen and no physical keyboard.

Those could browse the web, but the iPhone had a full, non-neutered web browser, which I don't think the others really had. The intuitive/natural multi-touch interface certainly helped with browsing.

Not sure why I got downvoted for the above... the first iPhone was legitimately not good at phone calls. A big part of that was that the AT&T network wasn't up to snuff at the time, though, and AT&T was the only option.

You can buy gutter cleaning and lawn mowing robots today.

Or something even more brave than spraying Raid on a hornet nest: do your ironing for you!

I need one that picks up thousands of acorns.

> big spending, big PR releases, big promises, untried tech, and sadly lots of questionable patent filing sprees

I thought that was generally how one became a defense contractor? The billboards on DC transit always made me chuckle.

The first three? Sure. The last two? Not so much.

There's a massive opportunity for a startup to move towards the personal/home robot market and make a killing, without any government help nor without some fabled visionary type person.

My guess is that patents will cause this process to take longer than most of us will live. Look how long it's taken for competitive robotic vacuum cleaners -- which are probably the simplest domestic robotics applications! -- to emerge, after Roomba's initial land grab.

What I am surprised about most is that Google didn't put BD on the path to make "street-view for the ocean floor" robots.

A literal fleet of robots that could map the ocean BUT also start cataloging all the fish in the ocean.

We talk about seafood collapse, what if there were thousands of robots that would suffice and charge via solar then dive and map and count fish.

That's a fucking vision for robots I would like to see.

Who would pay for that? Street View is worth all the effort it requires because it's useful for the millions of people who are travelling on streets.

Besides a robot that could catalog fish would immediately be outfitted with a spear gun, with disastrous consequences for already-dwindling stocks of large pelagic fish.

People laying and inspecting undersea fiberoptic cables?

AKA a tiny niche.

Fishermen and environmentalists alike.

Symbian OS (EPOC) was several years before Danger was founded

It's arguable whether Symbian really quite made the jump to being a smartphone OS though, given the limitations baked into the OS. There are good reasons why Android overtook it.

When Android overtook Symbian, Symbian was a more capable OS than Android, this had nothing to do with capability. Android was able to copy iOS faster.

Sure it was more capable: it'd been around a lot longer and had a mature ecosystem. However, it also had fewer constraints on where it could go and what it could ultimately do, which Android (and iOS) weren't saddled with. That started to get better from Symbian^1 onward, but by then Symbian had essentially lost. The S60/MOAP/UIQ platform fragmentation before that didn't exactly help.

> It's a hard to turn down offer, Rubin accepted and tried to recapture the magic pursuing somebody else's vision. But it's damn tough to be a founder / visionary under somebody else's thumb, especially when you're set for life financially. That's a story that never works out, but is played out again and again in technical acquisitions as big organizations attempt to find a place for founders.

Do you think Market's haven't quite priced this in yet? Market's are supposed to be epistemically efficient and factoring in relevant information.

That's an economists view of markets, the reality is that the fluctuations of stock every day illustrates the irrationality and near randomness of markets in reality.

"Efficient market" is a hypothesis, not an immutable law of the universe.

Yeah but if this has been going on for quite some time now, people should have adjusted by now. If market's haven't adjusted for this long, then i'm going to say our assessment of the situation and conclusions are incomplete in some major way.

This sort of reasoning is saying that buy-outs are overpriced, so we can make a decision-profit by NOT buying these companies and using your money for better opportunities.

Something has to be up here.

How long does it actually take for a market to adjust? "Quite some time" is hardly a quantity that confers any relevant information to your expectations.

Well considering the elite type people participating in these huge deals I assume that they will learn very quickly, and that there is something we are missing here. It's not like companies purchasing other companies is some new phenomenon, it's been a multi-decade affair at this point.

I hate to burst your bubble, but M&A is about as far from rational as you can get. Acquisitions are about much more than the present value of future cash flows.

I know M&A's are known to be unprofitable, so why do they continue to happen? What's going on that we are all missing?

As pjc50 said, it's often definitely a case of empire building.

Other times, the kind of personality that propels one into upper management makes him/her a particularly poor choice to execute an acquisition. Consider strong competitive instincts. While that is an excellent trait in certain types of companies, it can be a nightmare when it comes to acquisitions. Hell, highly competitive people can and have raised the valuation of a company several magnitudes beyond reasonable, simply through a bidding process.

In many ways, a competitive acquisition process looks like an auction and all the usual caveats apply.

failed experiments. in this case, someone at Google thought Boston Dynamics would be a good fit and that they'd be able to profitably cooperate. well, unanticipated complications prevented it. but they tried something different. sometimes these things do work out well. not this time.


It's usually not profitable for the company, but for the senior execs it's the best way to acquire more subordinates.

Perhaps because they are also known to be profitable.

> If market's haven't adjusted for this long, then i'm going to say our assessment of the situation and conclusions are incomplete in some major way

When presented with a conflict between your hypothesis and your data, you have (at least) two options: (a) reject the hypothesis (b) posit some hidden data that supports the hypothesis after all

The problem is that with long term return structures (such as long term R&D), there is no feasible way to arbitrage away wrong prices. So prices can diverge a long way from fundamental value.

This issue happens most visibly with the overall stock market level which reguarly and blatantly violates any kind of rational discounted cash flow e.g. in the dot.com era.

some things aren't for sale

I'll be the visionary.

Leaving out this context from Bloomberg article is negligent on the part of the journalist...

This is surprising to me. It seems that many prominent Googlers are very optimistic about robotics.

For example, in the FAQ of Jeff Dean's recent talk in Seoul, he mentioned how Deep Learning has a lot of potential to reinvent the field of robotics. Also, Demis Hassabis recently tweeted about progress in learning 3-D environments. I'd be surprised if Google wasn't looking into general purpose robotics...

Perhaps Google is disappointed in their robotics acquisitions and wants to start from scratch? It seems that they are farther on the software front than anyone at the point. I wonder what they'll do in their hardware/power divisions...

(Also, it kind of seems like Tesla and Google are on a crash course here. Tesla is ahead in power/hardware and is developing a top-tier AI team for self-driving cars. Elon also seems very interested in Robotics + AI. Google seems to be working from the opposite end.)

It's a big company so it should be no surprise that some sections of Google are very excited about robotics. For example you may have seen https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iaF43Ze1oeI which is research done by Levine et al at Google. One thing to notice in the video though is that those are all custom arms. Someone was able to get $1M+ to build out that lab and the work is on going.

I think the thing that Google has recognized is that cutting edge robotics research that takes advantage of the work they have already done in deep learning doesn't require the kind of robots that Boston Dynamics (or many of the other companies they bought) build. Cutting edge robotics (from the perspective of learning systems) is back at the level of getting a single arm and a camera to learn basic tasks. In fact, there is a lot of research that can be done in simulation with these new deep methods that doesn't even require hardware.

The software and learning systems they can develop will very likely make their way into super advanced complex hardware like Atlas in the future, but for now it's probably not the best use of their time.

When I was in school in the late 90s it seemed like all of the robotics and AI research were in create algorithms to emulate behavior. Boston Dynamic's work seems to be extended from that. They purpose built a robot with purpose built balancing and walking algorithms. The being pushed over and getting back up demonstration seemed to confirm that to me.

Everything I'm seeing these days with AI research seems to be about developing systems that learn for themselves. Rather than telling the robot/AI exactly how to behave in a given situation, it's about allowing the robot/AI to experience as many situations as possible and learn what the appropriate response should be so that in the future it can independently identify and react accordingly.

I was also in AI school in the 90s and I agree with you to some extent. But when you think about nature, much of the behaviour of animals is not cognitive, but instinctive and physically dependent on their structure. In other words if you can build a robot that knows how to walk because you built it that way, why not do so and build more interesting learning at the decision making level?

Well the problem with that approach is that you have to account for every possible situation that might occur and program them into the robot. When a situation arises that you didn't anticipate then bad things happen. When a learning machine, it can teach itself, adapt and understand.

The former approach works fine for a factory floor robot that is in a controlled environment but doesn't lend itself well to other situations. An example might be a biped robot walking up a mountain and it falls. Most of the examples I've seen, the Boston Dynamics one included, have the robot detect it's falling and put itself into a crash position where it remains until it comes to a rest before attempting to recover.

If your robot is rolling down a mountain it might be destroyed before it comes to a rest. Having a feedback loop, reflex reactions and the ability to access the situation and recover dynamically would be much more useful.

Having a feedback loop, reflex reactions and the ability to access the situation and recover dynamically would be much more useful.

Agreed. But none of that implies learning. So why are you talking about learning in the beginning of your comment?

This happens all too often in AI conversations. Learning gives you a special and powerful kind of flexibility, of course. But not being able to learn doesn't imply it can't cope with an infinite range of situations. A robot that's unable to learn could be programmed with enough flexibility to walk on any surface it could possibly encounter.

I meant to say that a learning robot could adapt to a situation and try out possible solutions, measure success and adapt where as a preprogrammed robot would only ever try what it's been infused with. In my analogy of falling down a hill, the learning robot might not be able to stop itself on the first try but hopefully it might adopt a strategy that could allow it to regain control of the situation.

I think it does imply learning. Human babies "learn to walk", by using the feedback from lots of little experiments to improve their ability to navigate uncertain and varying terrain.

Basically, flexibility and the ability to deal with novel situations is close to synonymous with the ability to learn.

>A robot that's unable to learn could be programmed with >enough flexibility to walk on any surface it could possibly >encounter

How exactly?

A self writing behavior tree that uses behavior to write new behavior based on past behaviors. Sounds human enough to become an addict of some sorts. :-).

Cutting edge robotics (from the perspective of learning systems) is back at the level of getting a single arm and a camera to learn basic tasks.

Which is a nice way to say that robotics really hasn't progressed that much in a sense an outsider would see as progress (where progress on outsider-terms would be Boston-Dynamics style robots that can, say, learn task and repeat them), though I'm sure researchers can point to a lot of progress on their terms.

  Which is a nice way to say that robotics really hasn't 
  progressed that much in a sense an outsider would see as 
I work in mobile robotics, and I can tell you that there hasn't been a lot of progress.

I wrote a post four years ago about all the various huge showstopping technical challenges facing mobile robots: http://c1qfxugcgy0.tumblr.com/post/31187427192/the-enduring-...

Basically nothing has changed since then.

To have a useful anthropomorphic robot you need better:

Only in software and computers are we seeing fast progress. (Big improvements in ConvNet algorithms, and the fast video cards you need to run them) But actuators need to be more powerful and much lighter, and batteries need to store at least ten times as much power. Progress in these fields has been slow, since energy storage is a mature field, and you don't see routine doubling of performance like you do with CPUs.

And, of course, an economically useful anthropomorphic robot has to be dirt cheap, as well.

And, of course, an economically useful anthropomorphic robot has to be dirt cheap, as well.

Indeed, people talking about this subject often don't realize that humans are really cheap in many if not most circumstances (Boston Dynamics is working on poison-gas-protection-suit testing robot. Finally figured out a job a person wouldn't do).

And it's an evil equation where once a given task is mastered by robots, it makes humans cheaper in many other tasks - because it increases the competition and because it decreases the cost of maintaining the human.

So we've seen incremental automation and steadily declining living standards. Not a world that screams out the benefits of technology.

Yet another reason basic income would be useful. By leveraging existing capital to establish a more stable floor under that progression.

E.g. "Why would I do that for that much? I don't have any driving physical needs pushing me to poison/injure myself performing a dangerous menial tasks for minimum wage." Which puts a floor on human desire to do basic jobs. Which helps continue to support investment in improving automation/robotics. Which makes the world a better place.

Which actually sounds a lot like a carbon tax and the struggles alternative energy sources have gone through. Call it a self-aware employment tax.

Jonathan Hurst, the inventor of the ATRIAS robot, has argued that we have the actuators necessary and that efficiency solves some of the problems with batteries[0]. A brushless motor hooked up to a big reduction gearbox can have a pretty high torque density. If we design our robots to be light and design them such that they don't throw away energy with every step, then they can go further with current batteries.


Is the hardware really that much of a problem ? It seems like the Boston Dynamics robots are already very far along on the mechanical aspects. I've also seen videos of industrial robots which appear to work with greater speed and agility than humans. My impression is that solving the control problem robustly and rapidly is a bigger obstacle than mechanical limitations.

I do see the power source as being an issue. Many of the most impressive robots are tethered, but even a tethered humanoid robot could be extremely useful.

BigDog uses hydraulic actuators, and is powered by a two stroke gasoline engine. Not so good indoors.

Stationary industrial robots, the only real success story of robotics, have great speed and power, at the cost of incredible weight and power consumption.

Consider the Motoman EPX2050.


15Kg payload, pretty okay, (Try holding a 15Kg weight at arm-length) but it masses 540Kg and has a rated power consumption of 5KW. (Three-phase power, of course) And that's just the arm! The NX100-FM controller it's specced with masses another 120Kg.

Mobile robots hate weight. Cutting weight forces a lot of other compromises, in speed, power, and cost.

What about Atlas ?


EDIT: Also for the Motoman, is it possible it needs so much power because of how fast it can move that 15 kg mass around ? There's no beating conservation of energy.

> Atlas is powered from an off-board, electric power supply via a flexible tether.

There's your problem right here. The video demo shows it walking freely, but I bet it can only do that for short stints.

If you studied robotics, you'd have learned that some walking/running problems are easier to solve when you have an engine with "unlimited" short-term torque. Low-powered electric actuators are very bad, hence BD uses gasoline engines to provide that short spike necessary for some differential equations to have a nice solution (e.g. one without power-pumping or without needing a few cycles around to reach your desired state).

Batteries have changed a whole lot since the 90's, though. Lithium-ion has a much higher energy density than lead-acid or nickel-cadmium. And without these improvements, many modern robots (roombas, quadcopter drones, etc) would simply not be possible.

Roombas run on NiMH batteries.

The PR2 I discussed in the blog post does indeed have a lithium ion battery pack. It has a 1.3kWh capacity, (188 times bigger than an iPhone 6's battery! Probably part of the reason the robot massed 220 kilos) which gave it a rated... 2 hours of runtime.

Lithium ion is better than earlier battery chemistries, but it's still not very good: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c6/En...

450 lbs, not 480 kgs. The main power draw comes from the 2 desktop computers sitting in its base. Runs for ~4 hrs if you turn one off.


I'm okay if my household robot is stuck in my household, and basically consists of very long arms.

Is it theoretically possible to achieve the kinds of performance needed from batteries and actuators ?

Actuators, yes. At last. The power to weight ratio of motors has improved considerably in recent years. The current record is 5KW/kg [1], for a Siemens motor for aircraft. Tesla's motors are around 3.5KW/kg, although that may be peak, not continuous. Water cooling, as used by Tesla and Schaft, helps a lot. Schaft's innovation was to apply water cooling to small motors.

You can run electric motors far above their continuous rated values for short periods. Also, electric motors specifically designed for brief overloads (high-temperature insulation, temperature sensors) are quite possible. Every automobile starter motor is such a motor. With synchronous brushless motors ("brushless DC" and "variable frequency synchronous" motors are the same thing; motors above a few KW tend to be called the latter) and big power IGBTs, you can have huge torques briefly without much difficulty. If you have the electric power available.

Batteries, maybe. Running time between charges is going to be a problem for a long time to come. There's a huge battery industry trying to get energy density up, with modest success. For many applications, trailing a power cord most of the time is an option. Especially if the robot can plug itself in, which the Hopkins Beast was doing in the 1960s.

[1] http://www.gizmag.com/siemens-world-record-electric-motor-ai...

The power density of electric motors is pretty amazing. Take for instance quadcopters, a couple of brushless motors can lift their own weight, batteries, and still have plenty of thrust left over to accelerate[0]. Yes those power densities are probably for continuous power.

The problem is not power density, but torque density. Brushless motors spin really, really fast with low torque, which is the exact opposite of what we need for robots.


Electric motors have maximum torque at zero speed. Maximum power is at half of no-load speed.[1] You can design motors for higher torques at lower speeds; it's a standard design parameter.

[1] http://lancet.mit.edu/motors/motors3.html#tscurve

The maximum torque an electric motor can produce is proportional to the magnetic field in the windings which is proportional to number of turns and current. Increasing the number of turns means more mass, increasing the current means more heat. More heat is particularly insidious, because as temperature goes up resistance increases, which makes more heat, which increases temperature, and so forth and so on.

SCHAFT found a solution to the more current problem with their ultracapacitor driven water cooled motors. Except one cannot drive said motors continuously and alone they still don't have that much torque, so if one wants more torque more windings must be added.

You can design motors for higher torques at lower speeds but the torque density suffers. Luckily we have compact high reduction gearing to transform high speed low torque to low speed high torque.

You've made some good points in this thread about actuation. Can you point me to more info on SCHAFT's actuation strategy? I've been trying to turn up info, but haven't found anything great.

I think the argument here is that this maximum torque is just not enough.

>> For many applications, trailing a power cord most of the time is an option.

If the charging time was close to zero, would this problem be solved, for many applications ?

Or the other alternative, phinergy's aluminum air battery, which has 2000 wh/kg, but cannot be recharged, just replaced and "recycled", but probably in a cost effective way ?

Primary batteries have higher energy densities than rechargeable batteries. The military uses high-energy-density primary battery technologies for one-shot items like torpedoes. This might be worthwhile if you were building robots to help decontaminate Fukushima. Commercial applications, no.

Most of Google's robotics acquisitions were driven by Andy Rubin, who was trying to build a robotics division within Google. Once he left the company, it probably left their future uncertain.

It's always a bad sign to me when a company's strategy lurches based on who's around rather than on changing external circumstances. It suggests to me that the strategy isn't a coherent, collectively understood plan, but a political balance.

It suggests to me that the strategy isn't a coherent, collectively understood plan, but a political balance.

I suspect that's the way it is... everywhere, all the time. That's been my experience.

I think it's a stronger phenomenon in cutting edge areas, as there's less group-think to fall back on or use as a crutch.

Everyone knew what to do with a typewriter, even if the visionary leader left. If the person who was saying that microcomputers were going to be the next big thing quit? Nobody else has that idea in their heads.

Is this from a real-world example? Because I'd expect the opposite to be true.

Cutting-edge areas tend to attract people there for the vision. And the harsh commercial realities of innovative markets mean companies get in trouble if they get complacent. Whereas people in larger, older companies in stable markets can let their vision die and just go on doing whatever worked before. At least until it doesn't work, and then they're screwed.

In this instance, Google is a larger, older company.

Or to extend the analogy, if someone goes to IBM as director for New Technology X, and then leaves five years later, what's the likelihood people in New Technology X Division are going to be able take his or her responsibilities over?

Big companies are big companies and they usually don't encourage or reward employees overly much for striking out in a brave new direction. Which is hilarious given that they'll continously try and hire exactly those people externally.

Though I suppose you honestly can't encourage too much rebellion when you make your money from a crank being turned (and happen to need 1,000 bodies to just shut up, turn the crank, and get paid).

I think it's the common mode in American business culture the last few decades, but I think that's a result of the managerialist paradigm that has come to dominate.

Most startups avoid it to begin with. There's a really strong incentive for having a clear mission and high customer focus; many things get easier. Wikipedia has done a good job with "Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge." Toyota has done a fantastic job organizing around the Toyota Production System. The best restaurants, bakeries, and the like generally have strong shared understandings. The same is often true of multi-generational family firms.

I think even Google did a good job for a long time rallying around "organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful". Which makes this especially sad to me. Around the time of Google Plus and "more wood behind fewer arrows" I think there was a culture shift that is probably irreversible.

>> I think it's the common mode in American business culture the last few decades

Agreed. I find it doesn't hold for most contemporary Japanese corporations though. Their leaders tend to be switchable placeholders whose main purpose is to efficiently represent a consensus view.

Interestingly, though they do have momentum, they seem to lack strategic direction. Perhaps only charismatic leaders can provide the latter. Japan can produce such people (e.g. Morita at Sony) but the current environment values continuity over vision.

Very interesting. I suspect that Toyota is a similar result of a visionary leader. I want to believe there's some way to get the benefits of both approaches at scale, but I have yet to see an example.

Do you have anything you'd suggest I read to get a better understanding of the current Japanese situation? Most of my knowledge is about historic Toyota, which I'm sure gives me a distorted view.

>> Do you have anything you'd suggest I read

Sorry, my opinion is formed only by observation and discussion with related parties. I don't have any direct experience of Toyota, except with one of their trading company's subsidiaries. Uniquely, this company does have a visionary leader at the helm, yet I believe there is no correlation with the parent's leadership style because Toyota Tsucho is run at arms length.

My rather uninformed opinion of Toyota Motors is that they are succeeding exactly as other Japanese companies used to succeed. If this is right, and I hope not, then they may be fated to see the same stagnation in time. A more optimistic view is that Toyota have something unique. If so, I don't believe it to be charismatic leadership. It would be baked into their culture.

Of note is Toyota's recent decision to invest $1B in AI research in Silicon Valley and Boston. They are trying to get ahead of the coming tech for autonomous driving and factory automation. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/06/technology/toyota-silicon-...

Thanks! Yes, I'll be interested to see how Toyota goes. Although many people have taken the TPS lessons and applied them in software, Toyota itself is not one of those companies. (Indeed, their software appears to be terrible. [1]) That makes me think that the visionary leadership that created TPS is long gone, and that they are coasting. But yes, what they're coasting on has a continuous improvement component, so it could be that an advantage is a permanent part of the culture.

[1] http://www.safetyresearch.net/blog/articles/toyota-unintende...

It is often true, but not always true. I have worked at or worked with companies that could express their strategy. But usually they are not big multi-division companies like Alphabet.

Yeah, but we're talking about shaping the future here: If you're relying on external circumstances for your hints as to what to do next, you're just reacting to the present....

That is very odd for me. How come a single man can change the faith of such a huge company in 2016.

It makes more sense once you take on a senior level role in those big companies, you start to see how a single, charismatic and convincing person can mentally mobilize (over a period of time) a large group of people to align with their hopes and dreams.

I was baffled by this as well, until I got closer to it and got to see "how the sausage is made".

It is amazing what a confident, strong personality can do in a group of people in _any_ setting.

What is this "How the sausage is made" you are talking about ? Is a video you can share ?

"How the sausage is made" is an American idiom. Generally, it means "a process that makes a good thing but is chaotic or messy".

We say this because sausage is tasty, but most people prefer not to see all the animal parts being ground up and stuffed into an intestine.

Actually, I think it was the German Von Bismark who could be attributed to the quote...

"Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made."

Not the OP, but its an English idiom rougly meaning everyone loves sausages until they see what goes into them, at which point they lose their charm.

Other people already explained the idiom, but here's a video of how sausage is literally made, because you seem interested: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mQbZ8KbZP5Y

It's a quote, with an uncertain source. "Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made"

You probably don't have much experience with larger companies. I envy you for that.

Yes, companies seem such opaque entities from the outside, but they are mostly driven by the wills of the topmost two layers. Remove key players from those layers and you see billions of dollars moving in strange new directions.

Uh .. that was his job. If he didn't do that he would have no job function in the company. If he couldn't change the faith of the company that employed him, then he was a bad employee at that particular job level.

That's what SVP/ director level / C-level people do for a living. They don't barely do any coding or any technical work - they create the vision and hire the people (or buy other companies) to make it real.

I am baffled by the cognitive dissonance here. This kind of single individual driving direction is LITERALLY the intended purpose of these high level roles.

Well, if you think of e.g. Marissa Meyer at Yahoo, big multinationals look like ships with so much momentum even the captain has trouble changing their direction.

Of course, reforming one arm of a business is a lot easier than an entire company, especially if nobody really depends on that arm.

Bill Gates famously "turned the battleship" at Microsoft in 1995 to focus the entire organization on the Internet. They actually did it quickly and succeeded (although more recently have lost their lead). So the right captain can make it happen.


I hear that analogy a lot, but on actual big ships, all the captain has to do is give the word and the ship turns pretty quickly. Maybe slower than a jet ski, but there's only one or two orders of magnitude difference there.

Likewise, sure, a big company has a lot of momentum but it shouldn't take more than a year to realign it.

You actually make a good point. The analogy gets used a lot because big ships do have big turning radiuses. But the better analogy is probably something more along the lines of the captain gives an order and various groups within the ship don't really agree with the order, so they say they're doing their part to make the ship turn but they're really not. Maybe the rudder have been moved a bit but the propellers are acting against the change. Furthermore, some percentage of the crew has decided that the ship should really be a plane and that's what they're working on.

Not really. On a ship (i.e. naval vessel), if the subordinates don't obey the commands, they get sent to prison for mutiny.

In a big organization, if the CEO says to do something (i.e. new vision... PKI's!), most people can ignore it with little chance of reprisal. It's much more of a political/social hierarchy than a military one.

A large company, like any large organization, is not a single thing. It's made up of individual parts, and parts within parts; all of them have different motivations. Frequently the most important competitors for some parts are other parts.

Think of it more like a feudal society. At the best of times, the headman at the top has the loyalty of most of the upper levels, and each of those has the loyalty of most of whoever is beneath them. But each of them has their own desires and plans: what they think will make the organization better or make their position in it better. At worse times, you have the War of the Roses or Game of Thrones sort of stuff.

The problem with bringing in outside organizations, like buying Boston Dynamics, is that they have their own, mostly fixed feudal structures, and integrating them is difficult. (Consider, at the very least, someone is going to go from the king of their own personal world to having to ask before they head to the executive washroom.)

A single person with a vision can have a great effect, because they only have to inspire (or convince) a small group of people around them to go along and that small group will bring along their own people. On the other hand, if the person with vision leaves the organization, whatever they were holding together falls apart pretty quickly.

(My favorite example is the Westinghouse(!)-CBS-Viacom thing.)

A single person can provide vision. A really good leader, gets his followers to want to follow them. If they leave, and nobody steps up to really lead...or if that leaders vision really isn't accepted then the organization is pretty much hosed. You can have the best group of employees in the world, and get by. Perhaps keep innovating for a few years. With an awesome leader at the helm, people show up extra early, they stay late, and they "believe." I've seen it too many times, in the military and civilian tech world. The "reality distortion field" that they speak of Steve Jobs possessing is real, and it's something only some people develop. Find those people and latch on, they'll take you for a fun ride.

I understand everyone comments but still find it not healthy that one man vision cannot be spread so other people around him to continue it even if he is not there anymore. I guess that is because that vision wasn't shared with a lot of people.

This is one of the reasons why BDFLs while being very effective, are also very dangerous. As when there is no equivalent replacement, the entire structure collapses.

If he couldn't, why would he command millions of dollars in compensation?

Just a wild guess, but my hunch is the logic goes:

google paid X for BD

google showed off their latest robots

someone offered 2X for BD.

or alternatively:

maintaining and discontinuing BD's government contracts both put google in a tight place.

There is a limited supply of geniuses. You lose one, all the B-players (that might consider themselves geniuses as well) will make sure you are going to take the wrong turns.

> It seems that many prominent Googlers are very optimistic about robotics.

BD was heavily geared towards defence contracts. That stream is gone. They will now have to do some painful restructuring, I guess Google don't want the bad publicity.

There are probably conversations going on that made the acquisition worth at the time (favour with public figures etc, Google has long been cozy with spooks and military types), and losing those contracts probably changed the equation significantly enough.

>I guess Google don't want the bad publicity.

So now that their research won't be used for murderbots anymore they're worrying about bad publicity??

Kurzweil gives updates? I thought he always took the same spiel and changed the timestamps whenever he felt he wasn't getting enough attention.

P.S.: Although probably not as aggressively self-promoting as the occasional Wolfram Noun Wolfram Verb Wolfram Wolfram.

Well I did see a YouTube of him at a Google conference around 2014 or so, doing some power points and taking questions from people.

Here, I found it:


("biologically inspired models of intelligence", I/0 2014)

That's not the robotics domain per se, but if you're the director of engineering at Alphabet/Google, you probably have opinions about robotics.

I'll welcome any material news about him in our our thread, the more recent the better.

s/the director/a director/

thank you

It seems like there is significant distance between being able to move forward in a stable direction and be a generically useful and sellable product.

There are a lot of problems to be solved before such a thing could work in even an Amazon warehouse along side humans in a cost-effective fashion - and the use of this thing is it's potential working-where-humans-work ability, otherwise it's easier to have automated bookshelves. And I'd choose an Amazon warehouse because it's an ultra-structured, streamlined environment, anything else would be harder.

Suspect that Google is uncomfortable with the primary purpose of their products being to kill people and take their resources.

They weren't too uncomfortable to buy the company that makes those products for that purpose to begin with.

Google's clearly interested in robotics, DoD, etc.; my guess is that this exit is for cultural reasons. Honestly, surprised they just didn't shutdown the company if things aren't going well.

Google is specifically not interested in DOD work. I don't understand why Google decided to buy a company so tied to DOD contracts if it did not want to continue that work.

This was what I was thinking when they first bought Boston Dynamic. Boston Dynamic was a huge DoD contractor. When Google bought Boston Dynamic, they explicitly said that they do not intend to be a military contractor and was expecting the existing contracts to expire [1].

The contracts that Boston Dynamic had with DoD expired in March 2015 [2]. My guess (BIG UNEDUCATED GUESS) is that the DoD doesn't take too kindly to its contractors not renewing its contracts and these military contracts contradict the corporate culture of Google. What's interesting is that they sold Boston Dynamic exactly a year after the DoD contract expired (donning conspiracy hat).

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/14/technology/google-adds-to-... [2] http://upstart.bizjournals.com/companies/innovation/2015/01/...

> My guess (BIG UNEDUCATED GUESS) is that the DoD doesn't take too kindly to its contractors not renewing its contracts

You may burn some bridges in your example but think of DoD like any other organization. If it's not getting the spotlight, there will be no hard feelings when things turn.

I'm going to go with Reuters for that story:


Being that they were the source, best as I can tell.

summary: Schmidt joins board to help an "alphabet" US govt agency or two modernize their operations with industry best practices

editorial: This could be good or bad, depending on how things turn out. And for your weather forecast, it either will be rainy tomorrow, or it won't.



> I don't understand why Google decided to buy a company so tied to DOD contracts if it did not want to continue that work.

My experience in this area is quite limited, but it's surprisingly difficult to find companies doing this type of research that are not tied to the DoD in some way. DARPA is a major source of funding for these projects, and many of them wouldn't get funded at all without the government.

Case in point, at least until now: iRobot, maker of everyone's favorite robotic vacuums ... and military support robots. (Now spun off, but a core part of the company's strategy for two decades.) Its first years were DARPA-funded for the military applications.

Google is clearly interested in working with the DoD:


Eric Schmidt participating in an advisory panel on technology trends is not evidence that Google/Alphabet wants to do business with the DOD.

Uber bought out several prominent researchers from CMU a few months ago, but are there any famous members at the Tesla team?

There's a researcher from Brown (I believe) leading the autopilot team now. But it's no where near as strong as a team at Uber ATC.

Some of Tesla's autonomous vehicle work is in conjunction with an Israeli company called Mobileye which has autonomous highway driving demos of its own, though Elon has been quoted in the press as saying that's not all of it...

Mobileye is a lane following relabelled as self driving.

It should be no surprise...

Google mostly bought Boston Dynamics to annoy the Pentagon, right after the Snowden revelations broke. DARPA sees Boston Dynamics' research as key for future ground-drone combat. Guessing somebody made a deal to get them back.

I find this implausible. I don't see Google spending that kind of money with out something sort-of resembling a plan[1], and didn't that purchase have to go through SEC approval? The DoD does have some pull with the SEC.

[1] Project Azorian not withstanding. Plus, it was funded by the government.

Don't underestimate the pettiness of billionaires, and the lengths they will travel to embarrass one another.

In fact, I can't think of a plausible reason for purchasing them and then putting them up for sale so quickly that doesn't involve political variables.

"“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,” wrote Courtney Hohne, a director of communications at Google and the spokeswoman for Google X. Hohne went on to ask her colleagues to “distance X from this video,” and wrote, “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,” she wrote."

I found this to be disappointing. More concerned about their brand image than trying to push robotics research forward.

> I found this to be disappointing. More concerned about their brand image than trying to push robotics research forward.

This is a director of communications we are talking about. Literally the beginning, middle, and end of her job description is "Consider our brand image." If she sounds overly concerned about Google X's brand image, that's because it's her job. Google pays her so that the rest of their employees don't have to be so concerned.

Basically every company on the planet with more than 20 people in it has someone making strategic decisions like this. The only difference here is we have a whistleblower reporting what she says internally. There's just about zero to learn about Google's priorities from her priorities, except that none of her immediate superiors is banging the drum for a PR battle over DoD robots.

I guess it's her job then to know that this kind of attitude is disappointing, isn't it?

This wasn't a public statement. It was an email to colleagues.

"Let's not comment" is, I think, the default position of PR departments everywhere on everything unless there is a crisis or a marketing campaign going on. Throwing fuel on a fire isn't wise unless you want there to be a fire.

This is incredibly disappointing to read. If they can't deal with the cultural repercussions of what they're building, then they're right, they need to get out of that game. Let someone else take the robotics helm

Given that Courtney is the Director of Communications, she may be overly focused on her own position's perspective on the news.

Yes, and when a person like that is calling the shots on strategy, the song is over. Companies lead from the PR department are on trajectory to crater.

Is she calling the shots? I took it to mean she was superciliously talking out of her ass to the reporter.

Especially since she wasn't talking to the reporter. This was leaked internal emails. She was doing her job, inside Google.


Still, we don't have the actual context: this could just be a department head bloviating on a thread she probably shouldn't have been included on in the first place.

Especially since the robots that BD is making are prohibitively expensive, and will remain that way for several years. If anything is going to take away human jobs, it's the software at the core of Google's business, which costs nothing to deploy and is inherently better than humans... Unlike robots that cost more than a typical human makes in their lifetime and are only now beginning to gain proper mobility.

If anything, the real concerns about their research should be their ties to the DoD and the military use of robots.

One of Ray Kurzweil's predictions is that the exponential growth of technology is really going to surprise a lot of people when we start hitting the hockey growth phase. What looks to be 20 years out may be getting solved in 2 or 3 years, or even sooner. Perhaps google is making such progress in AI, they sense the public may turn against them if they have both AI and robots. I'm probably wrong, but just a theory. Kurzweil does work for Google by the way.

The thing about smooth exponentials is that "hocky stick growth" is always 5-10 years away.

Alternatively, you are always hitting the hockey-stick of 5-10 years ago.

Real world exponentials are not necessarily smooth.

But if it is actually an exponential than the upswing is aberrational.

While Kurzweil generates predictions which are bold and falsifiable, there's an unfortunate tendency: The bold ones are not falsifiable, and the falsifiable ones are not bold.

every phase of an exponential curve is hockey stick shaped, thats what defines it as a thing.

Not just brand image, but actual customer decisions in the market. Look at how the self-driving car has evolved to look more friendly, for no technical reason, so the public doesn't resist it.

It's arrogant to push something forward in the face of widespread opposition, instead of finding an agreeable way forward.

Good for everyone else. This is exactly how startups get their opportunities. There's always a bigger, better company that can do what you want to do right now but won't.

I think it was just an excuse used as a cover-up. Sounds like cultural issues were at play with the split.

Perhaps there's a strong correlation between the people that get terrified by automation and the people that click ads.

Maybe, but does anyone think about the ad-buying system that they are supporting before they click on an ad? Personally, I doubt that ethical consumerism runs that deep.

I really hope that the last paragraph is wrong. Getting out of that area because they're afraid of neo-luddite backlash is ridiculous. Instead, they should be using their considerable power to push the much-lauded "Silicon Valley Democracy" (http://www.vox.com/2016/2/19/11057836/silicon-valley-democra...). Things like:

- Guaranteed income, or at least a stopgap like the old welfare system, but with far less means-testing and much more generosity

- Universal, free higher education

- Free, universal health care

- Smart, flexible regulatory apparatus

- A complete rethought system of unions (a la Sweden)

- Massive push (or even buildout) of dense urban housing developments. Make the modern "company town" an explicit goal if you must, then expand it to regions across the country

I really wonder if the Nordics have a leg up on us here; they're already 3/4 of the way towards this ideal, both in terms of policy and a cultural understanding of the benefits of a truly progressive taxation system/public goods and services. Would a Danish or Finnish robotics company bail out just because of fear of backlash, or would they say "society already has you covered, people"?

I must say I'm not sure if "society having you covered" is quite the issue here. Yes, being a Finn, I can attest on having most of your bullet-point list, as relating to the case at hand, covered. But it doesn't necessarily solve the knee-jerk reaction some people are having for these sorts of innovations.

It always strikes me a bit odd when someone from SV comments on societal questions. People from different backgrounds and different walks of life don't obviously share the same worldview, of course those people well off have a harder time relating to those lower on the economic spectrum. But somehow it feels almost like there's a physical discontinuum between the "tech" people, and other people, who don't breathe and live their work, who are just happy to keep whatever job that keeps food on the table. I believe a big part of this is that most folks, contrary to tech, don't have to actively learn on the job. That's why the common answer to start re-educating yourself isn't really a viable alternative for most average people in their 30s-40s.

Don't get me wrong, I think it's very much unfortunate that societal issues get in the way of progress that in the long run will make everyone better off. I'm just saying that the things you have listed aren't necessarily the only factor in solving this problem. It's like considering people and their lives only as a function of income and expenses, when there are really a host of other factors also at play here.

What we're doing now is a whole lot of nothing in the US; we've only recently been able to admit that this whole thing might be a problem, but are far behind in terms of actually doing anything about it. In your Finland, you are able to at least move forward from something resembling a solid political and cultural foundation; we're nowhere near that here.

The items I've listed would help us actually move forward to help people survive and navigate the new world: to give them individual agency, autonomy, and safety in a world where lifetime employment is gone; traditional unions are weak and/or are protecting jobs that may themselves be automated / cannot be created in numbers high enough to make up for massive job losses; the free agency/gig/Precariat economy is growing; and jobs are being automated away (even if Google has decided to step away for now.)

Identity factors, habits, location/mobility, etc. are all very important. Policy is meant to help provide a baseline for existence, not act as a panacea.

There will have to be logistical changes: many people will move to urban areas, as the UN predicts 2/3 of the world will live in by 2050, which are easier to provide services to, have high-quality educational institutions, and obviously what's left of many of the jobs.

There will have to be habit changes: those who want to compete will likely have to embrace autodidactism-for-life / training-for-life (free college / cheap online learning makes this one much more palatable.)

There will also have to be the hardest changes of all: cultural ones. We'll have different classes of people, many of whom will not be engaged in traditional work. Treating the latter as lazy slackers or parasites that deserve to starve will have to go, first and foremost.

We'll have people who still work, and who do much better than those that don't. With proper tax policy and others that I've outlined, we'll hopefully be able to avoid massive wealth gaps / concentration that could lead to massive social upheaval. Some will be managers, developers, business owners, etc. Others will still be in the gig economy, but will exist within it while working from a much more stable base. Being on a "zero hours" contract or working as an Instacart shopper will be much less punishing if you can always afford a place to live.

We'll have the "socializing/partying" class that may just get drunk, do drugs, and hang out with their friends, etc.

We'll have people who do spend their time mostly consuming media (video games, movies, news, etc.)

We'll have people who just sit around learning new stuff because they enjoy doing so; the idea of a lifetime of academia becomes much more appealing when you're not perpetually on the verge of starvation.

We'll have people who create music, art, social media posts, and image memes full-time without worrying about paying the rent.

We'll have people who finally get to play sports or make handicrafts like they've always wanted to.

The biggest adjustment we'll have to make: people will be required to find their own meaning if they can't work, and so cannot derive their identity from their job as they have in the past. Jaron Lanier's "multiple overlapping hierarchies of status" will become ever more important (from both sides: creation/participation and consumption.)

Politics and policy are just the start.

"There will have to be habit changes: those who want to compete will likely have to embrace autodidactism-for-life / training-for-life (free college / cheap online learning makes this one much more palatable.)"

Your comment reminded me of Star Trek: First Contact when Lily asks Picard about the lack of money and he said we work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity. Ever since that movie I was always fascinated with that unseen part of Star Trek canon where somehow the world figured out how to finally stop warring and competing and made human progress a first priority. I'm thinking we'll be in a few more wars (over resources) before we get there. Especially if our man-made climate change screws everything up.

I truly hope these kinds of changes will happen. The thing is, in the best case scenario it might be a somewhat natural process. For example what you are saying about the attitudes towards lazy people and progressive taxation. I'd definitely see it going to get better as time moves on, as the best jobs seem to unequivocally get progressively more pleasurable for those who want to pursue them. Then there would be no incentive to get fed up about the slackers, as your work gets closer to truly doing what you love for a living.

Also, makes me think a bit differently about companies like Uber etc. They are essentially enabling a part of the mechanisms you're talking about.

With all of the points you raise, one wonders why the Googles and Apples and Microsofts and Y Combinators of the world are started here, and not in Finland or Norway or Denmark, or whatever culturally-homogeneous oil-rich welfare state you have in mind.

And why so many of the the Linus Torvaldses and Elon Musks of the world head for the US as soon as they're able to.

Maybe social justice -- or at least your idea of it -- isn't the last, best purpose of humanity after all.

The Nordics create plenty of innovative companies, and that seems to be increasing. Here are some examples:


Just a few example companies: Skype, Spotify, Mojang

Example technologies: Bluetooth, pacemaker, AIS (like GPS), first LTE system. More, just from Sweden: http://www.swedenabroad.com/ImageVaultFiles/id_19367/cf_347/...

As far as people coming to the US, there are totally understandable reasons. We have excellent universities, more people (which matters: bigger local market, larger talent pool, more companies to work for, etc.), and we also have legacy clustering effects (NYC for finance and ads, SV for chips and startups.) These advantages are obviously very significant. There's absolutely no reason we cannot combine those advantages, our highly entrepreneurial culture, and the best the Nordics have to offer to be even better; that's part of what the "Silicon Valley Democrat" idea is about, and influential people there support it (that's where the idea comes from, obviously.) Even YC is doing research into the GBI.

This implication here wasn't about that, though; it was about what we'll be forced to do if we don't want to simply leave the masses unemployed and eventually storming the metaphorical--or literal--gates. That will require some or all of the above list.

one wonders why the Googles and Apples and Microsofts and Y Combinators of the world are started here

Maybe social justice -- or at least your idea of it -- isn't the last, best purpose of humanity after all

Woah. Talk about a non-sequitor. What's one thing have to do with the other?

The OP listed a number of social-justice related goals that s/he felt Google should strive for. That seems like an even greater non-sequitur to me; wouldn't you agree?

I responded by pointing out that Google was formed here, in the USA. The US is a country in which those values don't generally prevail and -- in any event -- where corporations are not responsible for upholding them.

I asked, more or less rhetorically, if there was perhaps a reason for that.

The OP responded by citing some counterexamples that more or less agree with my point, which I thought was an interesting way to argue. Skype was purchased by Microsoft (and let's not talk about Nokia, right?), while the founder of Mojang is living like a king of old Arabia in one of the most expensive homes ever sold in the US. We're apparently doing something right that those other countries are not.

Congratulations, you live in a country where a few wealthy shareholders are capable of extracting value from the large majority of laborers. I guess that makes you great?

No, but like just about everyone else in the US, I have more to lose from a class war than I would ever stand to gain.

You are measuring the country over what the successful, rich people can do or have. What about the vast majority of the population?

They're too busy playing Minecraft and yakking over Skype to care.

More seriously, it's pretty clear by this point that a rising tide lifts all boats, even under conditions of inequitable income distribution. I don't see anyone from the US trying to break into Cuba or Venezuela, do you?

Nordics have a leg up on us because they don't spend so much on their militaries and don't have such a diverse electorate to appeal to. The U.S. has them covered to some extent.

Alphabet should be pushing for more efficient governments, with an 's'. Americans need to let the world pony up more for safe international trade, and stop being so damn wasteful with ever increasing taxes and debt. Society will cover you when it's wealthy enough. Got to get there first though.

Honestly, I do think Google is really afraid of their perception problem. The last thing Google needs is people thinking data collection is going to lead somewhere bad.

I think that's a lot of why they really sunk the Google Glass project after the privacy backlash started appearing heavily in the media.

I loved my Glass, I still would prefer it over smartwatches sold today. But now it's kinda abandoned.

The annoying thing is that Glass would've still been a great product without the camera. All they needed to do was release a cameraless version first, then evolve from there. But instead they came across as some sort of weird surveillance device - which is a perception that Google is always struggling with.

That was always the odd thing, it wasn't really a good surveillance device. Not covert, lol. And the battery is unreasonably small for doing video.

I actually was angry I couldn't turn off auto-upload, and never used the camera. Would've been more than happy to have a model without it.

Occam's Razor: 1. Revenue Problem or 2. Neo-Luddite Problem?

Advertising revenues (their main income stream) are under fire on all fronts. Hardware is expensive and messy. They probably want to refocus their 'moon shots' in fields closer to their core expertise. Advertising, big data, AI.

I wouldn't be surprised if they scale back on the hardware side of self-driving cars as well.

I honestly hope it's the former.

How do you make higher education free? Doesn't someone have to still pay for it?

How about the big and worth billions companys pay for it, it is their share for the future at last? Just talking out of my ass here, but the american educational system is flawed big time in that regard, let education and teaching be free, everybody profits in the end. But then again, a well schooled and open minded citizen is not needed in the big scheme of american things. Who will fight their wars then??? /s

U.S. corporations have a much higher tax rate than the rest of the developed economies. The vast majority of corporations aren't sitting on mountains of cash like Apple. Additional tax expense is financed by a combination of higher prices, input cost cuts, and reduced profitability. You're not going to get much there.

US corporations may have high tax rates but that's only on paper. In practice, they massively benefit from loopholes in the tax code that are too many to count. Not to mention tens of billions in subsidies.

Yeah, but where do those loophole savings go? They flow to shareholders in the form of earnings, which get taxed again, or to consumers in the form of lower costs. You really need to look at total tax revenue per GDP, and we're at the low end of that, but when you consider our high GDP per capita (http://gregmankiw.blogspot.com/2010/03/taxes-per-person.html), we're in the middle of the pack.

We're actually not that stingy on education either: https://www.google.com/publicdata/explore?ds=d5bncppjof8f9_&...

And there goes the continuation of offshoring.

Next even the companies themselves will leave.

Do people really not realize the consequences of these types of actions?

>let education and teaching be free

But I don't think many teachers will teach for free. And the ones that do might not be as qualified.

You could force them to teach for free, but thats hardly ethical.

In some countries people consider education to be actually important. If you tax people with high incomes properly, the people that graduate university and get a well paying job will pay so much in taxes you will easily be able to pay for the next generation of students.

Taxes (in Sweden at least). Works pretty well.

That's not free though. You still have to have people working in order to pay for it.

Point being, lets call a spade a spade. They're tax-funded education, tax-funded healthcare. This is what we should be calling it. Because that is what it is.

Thats not to say I'm opposed to those things.

Where do the taxpayers get their money from?

Google "the socialists", is what I imagine I'd hear from the media.

That vision is nice and all, until you have to tell all the rich people and corporations that they must give away most of their income to sustain a "guaranteed income" future for everyone.

I'm not saying I disagree with it - in fact I agree - I'm just saying Google would have to be ready to fight for that and ask for higher taxes to pay for that income and other benefits for the whole population.

The graph of govt funding (almost all defense dept) of Boston Dynamics can be seen here:


Peaked in FY 2012, went to nothing (negative?) after Google X bought it at the end of 2013. Not sure if that is more because Google X wanted a real product, or that the defense dept didn't want to continue the relationship, or what.

The marine corps passed on big dog as "too loud" at the end of 2015, that killed a potential customer for that product.

> The marine corps passed on big dog as "too loud" at the end of 2015, that killed a potential customer for that product.

and if you look at the latest gen, the robots clearly are quieter-so BD is still listening to the needs of the military.

My take: This company can make boku bucks selling to the military, but not while Google is the parent. They've had military applications in mind this whole time, but held back from making the sales. To let this company soar, it needed to get out from under the google umbrella.

Google wont sell to the military, but apparently they will fund years of R&D for military use cases. Unfortunately the sale price that google will get for BD will take into account the future Military contracts that will be available now. Meaning Google will be indirectly profiting off selling robots to the military.

"The marine corps passed on big dog as "too loud" at the end of 2015, that killed a potential customer for that product."

That was apparently a subcontractor failure. The prototype BigDog was powered by an off the shelf constant-speed gasoline engine driving a generator and hydraulic pump. This was inefficient, but good enough for the R&D version. The LS3 militarized version was supposed to have a quiet variable-speed Diesel plus some battery backup. (The US military is all-Diesel now. Gasoline tankers have no place in modern combat, where there are few secure rear areas.) So there was a subcontract for a small custom variable-speed Diesel engine with hydraulic pump and generator, with stringent noise and weight limitations. That apparently didn't work out as well as had been hoped. Quiet, tiny Diesels are hard.

I wonder if electric or hydraulic actuators are quieter?

Also, what would be the range of running the LS3 on batteries, then the recharge time with an on-board diesel?

"BokuBucks" sounds like a pretty great name for a startup.

but I meant $ not ₣


There's likely another side to this- if Alphabet is putting a lot of money into a product type whose only past or foreseeable buyers are the US gov't, that would give the Feds some pretty fierce leverage in the event that Android winds up in a decryption legal battle like there's currently brewing over iPhones. BD could doubtlessly come up with something new for military gadget-buyers, but its unlikely to be such an emphatic killer app that their funding couldn't be used as a bargaining piece.

> only past or foreseeable buyers are the US gov't

They demoed warehousing robots that could automate some lifting, transporting, shelving tasks. There was definitely commercial potential there.

I interpret the graph as the Google acquisition being primarily responsible for killing the defense investment in BD.

> went to nothing (negative?) after Google X bought it at the end of 2013.

Yeah, does anyone know if BD paid the DoD ~3.5M in 2014? I haven't seen that kind of thing before.

Probably a contract that was "on the books" in FY 2013 but later canceled before payment in FY 2014. I assume there is a considerable time lag in payment when dealing with the US govt.

This most likely. You get to count the money for a contract when it gets booked and awarded, even if you don't start work on it immediately or actually receive any money. If you book a contract (and count the money) in one fiscal year and it gets reduced or canceled in a subsequent one the reduction counts as a "loss" even if no money has actually changed hands yet.

It might have been an equipment buyback. I.e., some large piece(s) of hardware that BD wanted to keep going forward, but that was procured with funding from a DoD contract.

(Incidentally, looking at the detail for year 2014, the total giveback was $5M. It was balanced by $1.5M of receipts in another category.)

I was just wondering the same thing

This coincides with Google's plans to phase out DoD contracts at BD: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/14/technology/google-adds-to-...

"Google’s public-relations team expressed discomfort that Alphabet would be associated with a push into humanoid robotics".

Observe the Innovator's Dilemma in effect: a successful company is putting too much emphasis on customers' current needs, and fails to adopt new technology or business models that will meet their unstated or future needs.

When realized, humanoid robotics will make the (self-driving or not) entire car industry seem like a quaint little side business.

I'm skeptical of humanoid robotics. If we're talking about productivity, humanoids will never be competitive with purpose-optimized robots. A few suitcases full of robots of different sizes will outperform a humanoid at almost anything.

Sex robots is one area where humanoids will be strong. But I think that's one area where a lot of humans will draw a line. Many humans won't even date someone with different skin color yet, let alone another species like a robot.

There is maybe a marketing advantage in the fact that they look like people so they might be seen as more trustworthy or comfortable. But there's the uncanny valley thing too. And with the little robots people will already have gotten really comfortable with, like, their kitchen counter robot making them coffee and breakfast long before a compelling, affordable humanoid robot exists.

I guess humanoids might make good spies if you can make them indistinguishable from people, but that's pretty sci-fi. And people who want to boss around a slave that has human feelings and stuff, but who don't like the idea of owning a human would be pretty into humanoids.

But all of this seems like fairly niche interests to me?

You're missing a few advantages:

* Automatic ability to integrate into environments designed for humans. Think doorknobs, ladders etc.

* All the advantages of legged locomotion over wheels.

* Once you have legged locomotion down you might as well do it on two legs and add some arms, and voila you have a humanoid robots.

Yup totally agreed. I think "network-enabled mechanisms" much better describes the future. Internet-of-Things is a wider scope, the Internet-of-Machines are any device with the ability to perform work (i.e. apply a physical force through a distance)

When realized, the robots that will make the (self-driving or not) entire car industry seem like a quaint little side business, will not look human.

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