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Google Acquires Boston Dynamics (nytimes.com)
799 points by dshankar on Dec 14, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 291 comments

> Although the videos frequently inspire comments that the robots will evolve into scary killing machines straight out of the “Terminator” movies, Dr. Raibert has said in the past that he does not consider his company to be a military contractor — it is merely trying to advance robotics technology.

His company _is_ a military contractor. This willful ignorance is very dangerous. It is so easy for engineers and scientists to just say they are working on cool technology, not intending for it to be used as machines of war. As a profession we need to open our eyes and acknowledge that much of our work is being used for military purposes. (Especially if the military is the one paying for it!)

EDIT: Yes, I agree that some people are fully aware of what their work is being used for. If they support it then it's their decision. It is just dangerous if we try to hind behind the veil of pure pursuit of knowledge, and ignore the reality of the situation.

We, the builders of this technology, need to deal with the ethical situations before they get out of hand. I think robotocists need to develop an analog to the hippocratic oath, and embrace it as a profession.

Just to clarify, I agree with you that any company that is funded by the military is technically a military contracter. But the term has deeply negative connotation.

Anybody who is involved with DARPA funded research. In this case it might be a little easier to the see the parallels between a robot and a war machine.

The Internet itself was a DARPA funded, as was GPS and they can both be seen as tools in war at least as this was there initial intent.

So while that does classify those who worked on them as military contractors, it is important to understand that its not necessarily a negative label and the benefits are sometimes felt years onwards after the military tech trickles down.

> The Internet itself was a DARPA funded, as was GPS and they can both be seen as tools in war at least as this was there initial intent.

Which started back when they were still just ARPA, the "Advanced Research Projects Agency".

It's a bit aggravating that they had to tack on "Defense", as if their achievements weren't justification enough, but I suppose dissuading Congress from killing your budget is an important pragmatic concern.

Just because "Defense" was added later, that doesn't mean it was at some point not a military-oriented organization. 'D' or no 'D', (D)ARPA has always been about improving military technology.

Nearly all the technology in front of you right now (your computer) came from military programs paid for by the US taxpayer. Google itself was initially funded via a DARPA grant, just like Boston Dynamics. It's public investment for private profit. This is no exception. Not to turn the conversation, but Libertarians (of which there are no few of on HN) need to get a grip on this fundamental aspect of the water they're swimming in here.

> Nearly all the technology in front of you right now (your computer)

Very True!

"Like the ENIAC, the EDVAC[1] was built for the U.S. Army's Ballistics Research Laboratory at the Aberdeen Proving Ground by the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School of Electrical Engineering. Eckert and Mauchly and the other ENIAC designers were joined by John von Neumann in a consulting role; von Neumann summarized and discussed logical design developments in the 1945 First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC"


Very true although using robots in a combat situations is not necessarily bad. One nice thing about robot soldiers is that they can afford to ask questions, then shoot later if necessary unlike humans who shoot first then ask questions.

Here is a great presentation on the subject: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ASDkNdhUvuU&nofeather=True

You are right that we should however acknowledge that robotics work does have military applications and that some ethical lines will have to be draw as we are reaching a point where we cannot ignore them any more.

They could ask questions perhaps if you had overwhelming superiority, such as when fighting an insurgency.

In an actual modern war scenario however they'd have to use every sneaky trick in the book or would eventually lose the war via attrition. Firing high explosive shells into buildings to kill the sniper at the top and all that.

Isn't insurgency an "actual modern war scenario"? It also tends to be the scenario where civilian casualties has the biggest propaganda impact.

For a long time, the Pentagon lumped counter-insurgency under the term "operations other than war". That bugs me. Counter-insurgency is war! We spend a lot of time optimizing for potential near-peer conflicts with countries like China and Russia. Maybe it's prudent. But counter-insurgency has become, for better or worse, a big part of what we do. We should not be so bad at it.

Sadly with drones we're moving in the opposite direction of shooting before asking.

With flying drones lobbing missiles, yes. I would hope that robots on the ground are a little better.

The standoff distance of flying drone is enormous, if we aren't doing it in the air we won't do it on the ground. Ground offensive robotics will get autonomous programming before aerial drones.

At what level do you remain responsible? If I build a faster microprocessor that enables the creation of an automated weapon that kills thousands of people am I responsible for the choice to use what I built in that way?

Huge difference between primary and secondary uses. If the the only use for your faster processor is for an automated weapon, you are responsible.

A processor is general purpose. What if you designed a thermal / visible 1024x1024 pixel camera with built in optical flow calculator in a cerdip package? Even the boss man didn't tell you what it was for you could figure it out. You would be responsible.

I honestly don't know what all those words mean when put together, but near as I can tell, that sounds like something useful for any kind of work related to robots with vision. Which part indicates that it's for killing people?

The thermal imaging part (think of the FLIR systems used on Predator Drones) means it will be used to pick up heat signatures, the optical part will be used to check whether it's something you're looking for.

Now that could be used to check heat distribution on a motherboard, so up that that point, it's benign, but the optical flow calculator nudges it into other territory.

An optical flow calculator means it'll be used in some kind of mobile system. That instantly cuts out most industrial processes, most consumer applications, and most scientific applications. It simply wouldn't be necessary there.

The relatively high resolution of it also points towards it being used in highly specialized applications. For comparison, consumer priced thermal imaging chips usually come at 16x16 pixel resolutions.

The last thing sealing the deal would be the CerDIP package. CerDIP stands for Ceramic Dual-inline Package, instead of the usual Epoxy that holds the world of electronics together. I haven't worked with them, but I wager they're only used in critical applications, stuff that shouldn't fail even if it's screaming along with 300mph through the sky, right next to a plane engine.

So yeah, either you're building a drone with it, or you're building a drone with it. It'd be too expensive for any other application.

Still, there'd be future consumer applications for the technology. The technology the new Kinect uses for example used to be reserved for spotting tanks in underbrush (I assume that's where tanks live and raise their young).

Correct. As the engineers we need to breakdown our technological components and realize how they will get assembled by the end users. Our moral obligation doesn't stop with "just making tools" and leave the hard problems up to the people that will ultimately be pulling the trigger.


I agree entirely, but how does this work for FOSS? IE - if we license our stuff BSD or MIT or WTF, technically we're allowing it to be used by the military or contractors like Lockheed Martin. Perhaps we need a license that basically states that our stuff can't be used for military application?


[Edit: Parent previously claimed that we need to develop an EMP or similar device to disable robots as a last resort]

I guess the problem is a portable EMP or similar will be used as a weapon too. In fact it's probably worse, there's not a consumer market there - they're just military weapons.

Wouldn't that be solved by shielding the circuitry using a Faraday cage?

It is important to acknowledge that. It's also important to know that many people consider this a fine use of their work.

Yes, if you are fully aware of what your work will be used for then by all means, keep doing what you're doing. I was more taking issue with the fact that he does not consider his company to be a military contractor, when it clearly is.

A few years ago I enrolled in a four-month investigative journalism program. My challenge was to find an interesting character and embed myself with the person, writing about his or her life and career.

I ended up running into an engineer from Boston Dynamics and spent four months writing about his unique approach to solving problems.

The engineer, Jon, who worked on Big Dog as well as Rise, was one of the coolest and most inspirational people I've met. He explained how he struggled with dyslexia as a kid, and engineering, being more right brain-oriented, was a vehicle that allowed him to succeed despite his disability.

In fact, he later took a huge salary cut so he could become a high school teacher and teach engineering to kids, especially those with dyslexia.

But getting back to the issue at hand, I really enjoyed learning about Boston Dynamics during the four months I spent working on the story, and I think Google made a smart decision.

do you happen to mean jon clark? i helped work with him on RiSE :) can't believe it's been almost 8 years now. i wasn't working with the robotics directly, though, but studying animal locomotion (measuring foot forces, CM, roll/pitch/yaw ...). good times

Jon Clark is a professor at FSU now, and he's still collaborating with some ex-RiSE folks like Mark Cutkosky (my PhD advisor) and Dan Koditschek.

The robotics expertise that Google is assembling is quite varied, which is really interesting. They already have stellar computer vision and machine learning people on the self-driving car team, and their earlier acquisitions cover other software disciplines like whole-arm kinematics (Bot & Dolly) and vision (Industrial Perception) as well as hardware like manipulation/grippers (Meka and Redwood) and actuator design (Schaft).

The Boston Dynamics team is probably the best concentrations of specialists in dynamic legged locomotion, especially by studying animals for inspiration. Marc Raibert, who started BDI, did stuff in the 80s that still seems incredible today.


I'm excited to see what they can do with the flexibility and funding they'll get at Google. I believe their previous funding was primarily grants from DARPA, which means lots of grant proposal writing, narrowly focused research goals, quarterly progress reports, etc.

I did my undergrad with Jon Clark! Great guy. It's cool to see a few bio-robotics people on HN

The guy I wrote about was Jon Amory, but Jon Clark sounds like a cool character as well. Here's the story, which includes some photos and videos. You might recognize the other Jon because I think he also spent a lot of time working on RISE. :)


I just wanted to say you're a really talented writer! :)

Thanks! That's very nice of you to say. :) It helps a lot when you stumble upon an interesting subject and character.

Do you happen to have any reports or theses about the animal locomotion studies? I'm currently working on a similar topic (https://github.com/ivoflipse/Pawlabeling/) and its always good to learn from past experiences.

sure! most of my publications were centered around how robots should climb vertically, but i am also familiar with horizontal and also on various substrates (sand, mesh, etc). we studied the animals "steady state" locomotion (such sprinting as fast as you can without thinking about your steps). this paper is the culmination of many hours spent with cockroaches, geckos, home-made 3d force sensors, high speed cameras, matlab, and c++ simulations :)


let me know if you have any questions or would like to talk about other animals, substrates, and/or differences between horizontal and vertical locomotion.

That looks really interesting! I'm currently trying to cook up a reliable way to label my paw prints (like here: http://stackoverflow.com/questions/4502656/how-to-sort-my-pa...).

I'm wondering if modeling/simulating quadruped locomotion would help make this task a lot easier. Instead of trying some machine learning/computer vision on the pressure data, reason about what kind of walking pattern brought forth the results. Like a paw can't be in two places at the same time and other heuristics like that.

Any suggestions for literature I should read up on for horizontal locomotion? :-)

cool. what specifically are you trying to study?

there's no substitute for the actual foot force data. i would collect this directly, in 3d (not just z-direction -- which it seems like you are currently doing), to understand the basics and then later involve simulations to iterate different designs that produce the desired motion and forces. i built a force plate that measures forces in 3d with piezoelectric sensors. it shouldn't be as hard with a feline because their feet have a reasonable distance between them (try getting only one of a cockroach's feet to be touching the plate at a given time to measure what forces it produces!). the reason why i have this opinion is that the most interesting part of comparing how animals run versus climb are the lateral forces. another interesting thing is that the number of legs is irrelevant (well except maybe monopod) because when studying two, four, six or 44 (centipede -- man those things are scary to handle!) legs, the forces reduce to a basic pattern we all share in common. when a centipede is sprinting, only three of its legs are on the ground at any time, so it's forces look identical to a cockroach or any other hexapod. when you have less than 6 legs, then you can observe the effective 6 legs by analyzing various portions of their phase. for example, when you walk (bipedal), when your foot is out in front of your center of mass, the forces generated are like the front feet of a hexapod (deceleration only). when you foot is near your CM, it generates forces like the middle legs of a hexapod (deceleration followed by acceleration). and when your foot is behind your CM, it generates forces like the rear feet of a hexapod (acceleration only).

there's more i want to say, but i'll save it for a subsequent comment :)

as for additional reading for you, i would take a look at Robert J. Full's research. there are a couple horizontal locomotion papers cited in the my paper linked in the prior comment that have phrases like "on the horizontal plane" or "on land" in the titles.

also, here's all the papers from his lab: http://www.polypedal.com/?page_id=163

and here's a link to one to get you started: http://www.polypedal.com/Images/PolypedalPublications/62_Dyn...

I'm helping veterinary scientists with their gait analysis, basically by porting the calculations used for pressure measurements (so no 3D forces) on humans and solving problems like detecting the paws along the way.

An example of what this gets used for are things like lameness detection or diagnosing disorders. Or it could be used to evaluate the effectiveness of the treatment.

While the pressure plate doesn't measure 3D forces, it does have the advantage of giving you information about the distribution, which I expect at least has strong correlations with 3D forces. Obviously you need animals of a certain size to get good data (or systems with very small sensors), so you wouldn't use it for gecko's or even really small dogs.

Perhaps I should try calculating the distance to the body's center of mass, to get an idea how well this distinguishes the different paws. The problem I'm having so far is that the quality of the measurements isn't always optimal and inferring which paws are making contact is difficult if you don't see paws from both sides (for quadrupeds at least).

I'll be sure to check out the research you pointed to!

Interesting. Do you have a link to the story?

Hey, thanks for your interest. :) Here's a link: http://codynedromano.wordpress.com/2011/04/08/vertices/

HN gets a lot of post about acquisitions and whatnot, but I feel this is probably one of the most important in recent memory.

The implications of taking this talent into consumer robotics (or augmenting their presence in the defense community) will ripple through the tech world.

It's amazing because it's so clearly, wildly complementary: Google becomes the prefrontal cortex to Boston Dynamics' robotic central nervous systems. I can't see this pairing as anything other than the beginning of the world of sci-fi robotics.

> Google becomes the prefrontal cortex to Boston Dynamics' robotic central nervous systems.

Or to put it another way, Google's computers plan the strategy, and Boston Dynamics' controllers take care of the tactics.

Which often doesn't end well.

It "often doesn't end well"? It hasn't ever happened!

Stories about it often end in a way that makes for a good story. That's not saying the same thing at all.

Well, he did say "sci-fi" robots.

There's a basis in reality for those. many powerful technologies have been used in the fast for "evil".

I would go further and say "all" rather than "many". However there is the real question of: on the balance - does this help more than it hurts.

Additionally just the very act of being concerned about misuses helps mitigate them.

And many have been used for good. The technology itself doesn't have any will of it's own. People just use it. And people do both good and evil.

Until it does have a will of its own.

Not likely. We're software developers, not soulware developers.

Without making judgments about the motivations behind this statement, I just wanted to link to the LessWrong article on The Logical Fallacy of Generalization from Fictional Evidence: http://lesswrong.com/lw/k9/the_logical_fallacy_of_generaliza...

Actually, I think in this case, the LessWrong types must have some rather strong words for Google. Starting with "PAPERCLIP" and "DON'T".

Couldn't agree more - I would rate this as the second most important news item this year, after the NSA revelations.

Yup. Absolutely agreed. I really didn't expect this.


Here is a link to Boston Dynamics' YouTube channel in case any of you want to see some of the amazing robots they've built over the years.

Boston Dynamics' robot knowledge (and patents) combined with Google ability to create awesome software, such as their self-driving car, will be a great combination.

I'm not sure where going is going with all of these recent acquisitions. Home and office robots to make our lives easier? What in the heck are they up to at Google X?

The US DoD probably doesn't like this too much, considering that Google stated that they do not want to step into the government contracting sector. Boston Dynamics seemed like one of the most promising contractors for DARPA in the robotics industry.

IMO it's only a matter of time before Google steps into the cyborg industry. It's almost scary to think about, but it's inevitable and at least Google has some experience in dealing with products and services that are controversial, such as data privacy.

I was about to rip on Apple for not doing anything innovative or even remotely interesting in years, but it's sad to see all of that money be wasted on rounded corners, perfecting fonts, and scrolling animations.

> it's sad to see all of that money be wasted on rounded corners, perfecting fonts, and scrolling animations.

It may seem like a waste from a technocratic point of view, but it's probably worth it just for popularizing and normalizing technology. If we didn't have that bump in style and usability in smartphones/tablets, people would be less comfortable with carrying around the internet in their pocket, there'd be less demand for tech like 4G, etc. Now people's minds are a bit more open to pervasive tech, and it may help adoption of whatever tech BD+Google develops.

Apple had the same issue re government contracting when the bought PA-semi. The honored existing contracts and made no new ones afaik.

When Google starts investing/buying into companies doing bio-compatible materials, this is when we'll see they are moving to cybernetics. It's the basic research that is started before big advances in the field appear.

I think you've hit on something important that I didn't realize at first; patents. Those BD patents have got to be worth a lot of time & money to Google. When I first read that Google had acquired BD I was shocked and a little scared, but now it makes a lot of sense.

Why does that alone mean it makes more sense?


"Within a year they had two demonstration projects that got a lot of media attention. The first was an autonomous humanoid robot that, given an apartment number, could walk through a city, find the building, ride the elevator or walk up the steps and knock on that apartment door. The second was a car that could drive itself door-to-door in rush hour traffic without any human intervention. By combining the walking robot and the self-driving car, the researchers demonstrated a completely robotic delivery system for a pizza restaurant. In a widely reported publicity stunt, the research team ordered a pizza and had it delivered by robot to their lab 25 minutes later."

ok, so it's pretty obvious mainstream robotics' time is finally coming. growing up, I could teach myself many facets of software engineering with nothing more than a few books and a computer, and build all kinds of interesting projects that I could use myself and share with others, like games, utilities, web sites, etc.

this analogue doesn't seem to be there for learning robotics. if I hack on a robotics project, it feels like it's going to be more of a toy or a demo, and it is self contained and not something that I can share with others to use. sure, I can spend time getting a robot to solve a simple puzzle, navigate a maze, or whatever, but these types of projects seem so less motivating compared to the types of things that got me into coding in the first place: things I could share with others and that they would enjoy using. Are there projects like this? What are some robotics projects that I can build and learn from while and actually use and enjoy, today, relatively cheaply? I want to learn this stuff but it feels very forced to find that most projects seem very academic in nature and not "shippable" like even the most basic toy projects I did when starting out.

I went through Thurn's self-driving car class and started the mobile robot control course on Coursera, but the apex of these is at best a simple little robot platform moving around my house sensing tape on the floor. Even that will cost me $1000, in practice I will probably end up with just a simulation on my PC. Mindstorms looks cool but almost by definition it is just a toy. When can I build a robot that will perform real, useful automation that will improve my life, even in some marginal way, not just seem like a cool toy? How can I build a robot that will fetch me a beer or let the dog out or get the mail or something even minor that will make me feel like I am doing something with purpose and a real goal and not a homework assignment to get a robot to perform some meaningless task.

ROS and Gazebo are Open Source, are used by professional researchers, and are all you need to make a real contribution. You can't afford a robot, but you can simulate a very good one for free.


The point I was trying to make was that this is great, but at the end of the day my final asset is a little simulator running on my computer that is basically only interesting to other robotics geeks and doesn't actually "do" anything. Some my earliest projects as a programmer were things like photo organization tools, online forum software, ANSI art editors, things that solved a tangible problem and that I could share and others could use. This aspect to it was key in keeping me motivated since it wasn't really a "homework assignment" that solved some abstract problem. I feel like there's a gap here.

I assumed the final asset would be your education.

But there is a real gap here: You probably don't have any problems that a simple robot would fix. You can buy a Roomba if you want. The killer app for robots is the autonomous car, and that is coming. No one has figured out what you want a robot for in that huge gap. Heartland has a nifty $20K robot that will do light handling tasks. You still don't want one.

If you can think of a robot version of the little software projects, good on you.

Is the autonomous car really the robotics killer app? I don't doubt that the autonomous car will reshape more than one industry (real estate, insurance, and transportation spring to mind), but I think proper robots might allow us to shed so many assumptions about what is possible that it's actually currently difficult to imagine all the things they will end up being used for.

It will save around 20,000 lives every year in the US alone. And prevent many more serious long-term injuries. What other household robot will have such an impact on families?

Don't get me wrong, self-driving cars are the human advancement that I am most looking forward to.

I think they will both be extremely big changes in different ways. Autonomous cars will be one big impact that indirectly touches many industries. Robots are going to get into everything, and the world will look very different at the end of it.

Robots will do farming, cleaning, food preparation, fire rescues, surgery, manufacturing. Basically, whatever parts of the world software can't eat, robots probably can.

I think a plain old "getter" would be fun. I'm on a chair and I want something to get that thing on the out of reach coffee table and bring it to me. Like a roomba with a camera and an arm.

it is however a really good question - not just good on him, but inspiring to us all.

(late edit: not Heartland: Rethink Robotics. They renamed before Baxter launched.)

I can think of a few projects that would be useful and fun, i.e. laundry-sorting bot, sandwich-making-bot etc., but they'd all be expensive and difficult to do.

A cheap, robust robot hand/arm would go a long way towards making this kind of robot-hacking accessible, but the bigger obstacle is that the generic computer vision building blocks that you'd need don't really exist yet (OpenCV is a good start)

The problem is that many tasks that seem simple (when you take millions of years of visual system evolution for granted), for example recognizing a sock in a pile of laundry, turn out to be pretty difficult.

Some of the theoretical problems do seem to be quite difficult, but the great thing about implementation is that as long as it works "well enough," no one minds if you cheat. For example, recognizing a sock in a pile is difficult, but what if the robotic arm just tries to pick it up anyway? From there it can weigh it as well as better seeing the size & shape of it in order to determine whether it is a sock. The difficult theoretical problem suddenly gets replaced with acceptable behaviour for the laundry-sorting application.

I like your outlook :)

On top of this, if a robot is doing the work it doesn't have to be the most efficient. Do it in stages... sort by weight or rough shape. Then a second pass does the "is this a shirt or pants" computation. Then sort those piles. Finally come back to "pairing socks". Or don't. It's already saved me a bunch of effort! Let someone else figure out what to do with a pre-sorted pile and I'll just add the firmware or another stage robot. It feels very "hacker ethic" to me!

You might be surprised at the software components which do actually exist:


Check out the videos on that page. There are a lot of obstacles to inexpensive robotic manipulation; the main ones are power-weight ratio and power-cost ratio of the actuators.

I think your statement can be turned into its own solution...

I agree that there is a real gap there - so a great contribution would be to fix the gap!

Compare hardware hacking. Until the last few years, it was pretty darned hard to get into. There have always been kits - e.g. the basic stamp, but they felt toyish. Lately though through a combination of Arduino, the explosion of hackerspaces, globalization allowing cheap and easy board design, and murky social forces entering the DIY electronics world has become a real thing. Gaps are being filled in at an impressive rate now... People are using Arduino to fix stuff that would have been a major project 10 years ago! Yes Arduino still has a tendency to feel like a toy (but less of one than a basic stamp), and, there are lots of projects that fill the space between it and DIY pocket computer... look at RaspberryPI or Beagle for examples - you can do a really good control system with them, python and minimal hardware knowledge.

So I suggest to you or anyone who wants to fill the gap - try to invent the Arduino of robotics kits. On your side there are several nice factors: easy access to 3d printing, widespread knowledge of the electronics parts listed above. Halfway decent free modeling packages (although engineering and simulation software may need some love). The opportunity is ripe!

I highly recommend watching a talk given by Erik Nieves from Motoman at the most recent RosCon because he talks about the state of the robotics industry and why this "gap" exists in a very accessible way.


Two reasons why I think the gap between getting started and being able to build something useful exists is that robot parts are still much more expensive than we expect them to be and the fundamentals of robot movement are much more difficult to learn than we expect them to be. Unfortunately, I think those two factors discourage a lot of engineers early on and is why the size of this community is so small.

I feel very fortunate that I have a Kuka YouBot to hack on. The company I'm trying to get started with two friends wrote a proposal that got accepted into the sponsored track of a competition Kuka is running. (http://www.kuka-labs.com/en/network/innovationaward/) After setting it up, it's clear why this is a 20,000€ robot. But before you can actually DO anything useful with it, you have to be able to understand kinematics and dynamics as well as how to get path planners to talk to controllers. And then the really powerful stuff becomes possible once you incorporate computer vision, which is also not an easy topic to understand. It not surprising that most of this work is being done at universities by grad students.

The state of ROS today feels a lot like what Linux felt like to me back in the late 90's. There are lots of issues with dependencies and programs not compiling correctly. Documentation is severely lacking. But there's lots of enthusiasm from very friendly people to help each other work to make things better.

What makes me worry is that many of the advances in ROS came from Willow Garage and Google is buying up many of the companies that spun out of Willow whereas a lot was made possible in computer vision due to the sensors made by PrimeSense, which was just acquired by Apple. I hope the Google vs Apple rivalry doesn't slow the pace of progress in open source robotics that was making the dawn of non-industrial robotics seem not so far away.

I've found the real cost factor is not so much the robotics platforms when you want to make big+specialized things like this (because the robotics platforms specifically designed for one's particular problem space are often few or non-existent) but the hurdle of tool acquisition. That is to say, most people I know working on these sorts of things as hobbies build as much as they buy. A decent small metal lathe runs about $600-1000, a mill drill can be put together for around $1k, CNC router capable of cutting decent size panels of aluminum for around $2k+.

You can buy inexpensive robot platforms, but they're small - there's a reason for this. Heavy, powerful components cost real money and someone has to make margin selling them to you, given they paid margin to buy them. High power and high current control systems (motor drivers, motors, etc.) are more difficult and expensive to design than small, low-power units.

But, there's nothing stopping you from seeing a design you like, and making it from the raw parts, except a lack of tools (in most cases).

> a simple little robot platform moving around my house sensing tape on the floor. Even that will cost me $1000

Huh? You can buy line-following robot kits on Amazon for $30, and there are even cheaper ones out there.

> When can I build a robot that will perform real, useful automation that will improve my life, even in some marginal way, not just seem like a cool toy? How can I build a robot that will fetch me a beer or let the dog out or get the mail or something even minor that will make me feel like I am doing something with purpose and a real goal and not a homework assignment to get a robot to perform some meaningless task.

Right now, buy some motors, buy some metal stock, bearings, shaft, pulleys, etc. and start designing a machine around them. Long before you get to the algorithms of running a robot, there are the physics of it, the basic electronics knowledge, and the design and machining.

> What are some robotics projects that I can build and learn from while and actually use and enjoy, today, relatively cheaply?

Small robotic arms are cheap these days - OWI and Lynxmotion make fairly inexpensive arms for learning, small wheeled bases like the Dagu Wild Thumper can carry a small arm for around $250, and are well regarded. You can throw an Arduino or Raspberry Pi in for control put together a Lynxmotion arm and a Dagu base, and for less than $600, you have a platform that can lift small objects and move them around. When you want bigger, make it yourself from what you've learned.

> Right now, buy some motors, buy some metal stock, bearings, shaft, pulleys, etc. and start designing a machine around them. Long before you get to the algorithms of running a robot, there are the physics of it, the basic electronics knowledge, and the design and machining.

This is very much a need. The Turtlebot is a low-cost ($1300) way to get a lot of functionality out of the box, though the lack of manipulator does limit what you can accomplish.

If you (or your lab/company) does have a five-figure budget for hardware, there are a number of very attractive off-the-shelf options which exist to prototype on: http://wiki.ros.org/Robots/#Portals

(Disclosure: I work for Clearpath Robotics, which design and manufacture several of the machines on that page.)

> I've found the real cost factor is not so much the robotics platforms [..] but the hurdle of tool acquisition

That's what membership in your local fablab is for.

Indeed, or your local hackerspace, etc. In fact, the poster I commented to would probably find people there already working on the sorts of platforms (s)he envisions.

Yeah, we're more at the Homebrew Computer Club stage of soldering our own machines than the <platform> BASIC and BBS stage right now.

Give it 5 years though and I can see home kit manipulator, teachable robot kits that you could program to maybe water the plants or dry some dishes.

>Huh? You can buy line-following robot kits on Amazon for $30, and there are even cheaper ones out there.

There is the hexbug spider which makes a nice, hackable beginner platform (http://www.amazon.com/HEXBUG-Hexbug-Spider-colors-vary/dp/B0...) with the addition of an arduino nano.

The kilobots are also cool (http://www.eecs.harvard.edu/ssr/projects/progSA/kilobot.html), and an even smaller, cheaper robot (http://www.hizook.com/blog/2011/09/08/infrared-remote-contro...) using the same principle of locomotion.

Isn't this a role that 3d printing and Quadcopters are filling for like-minded tinkerers?

Extension projects : for instance, if one has a quadcopter and a go-pro, then the next problem is figuring out a cheaper gimbal mount (using BLDCs and a micro-controller/gyroscope).

I think that there are a lot of professional-quality robotics projects that one can do, if you look at specialties that use robots. "Robot" is a loaded term that conjures up generalized images of the stuff you read and see in movies. Look into keywords like "automation", "mechatronics", etc... Examples: Silicon wafer handlers, pick-and-place machines, vacuum cleaners, beer pourers, recycling sorters, package handlers, CNC machines, etc... An especially interesting field is open-source prosthetics.

There are prosumers making these types of robotics projects in their garages/local hackerspaces. There are many online forums where people sharing their builds as well, and many times these builds are actually used in production situations.

Also a high-quality robotics platform in no way needs to cost $1000. If you're on a budget just go to a local hobby shop, spend $100 on a chassis + wheels + motors and order some $0.10 sensors online.

All of your points are good but, keep in mind, a robot that is capable of changing your physical world for the better is capable of doing the opposite. A robot that can get you a beer can also drop one on your toe.

For this reason, I expect the "personal robot revolution" to occur at the nexus of wealthy/non-litigious. I'm not quite sure where that is maximized on earth at the moment, but I'm quite certain its not the USA. (My current bet is Chinese cities)

I've been wondering about this for a while given I currently work for a community college. Skipping the "robot engineer" degree I would expect to show up, what the heck kind of training would be needed for a "robot technician and repair" vocational program?

In my school we make line following robots with 14 year olds that are programmed using a couple of cheap micro controllers and cost about £4 in total. $1000 seems a little excessive.

i am referring to a 'legit' robot platform that has sufficient sensors, wheel tick counting, etc, to implement full-on SLAM to get around an area of your house or something (built up from raw sensor and control I/O), which I'm assuming is kind of the "write a decent ray tracer" or "write a lisp" of the robotics world.

turtlebot is like $2k, for example:


yeah proper robots is absurdly expensive. But its also multi-faceted. So if your interest is in machine vision, you can do alot of experiments with a web cam (which are really good now!)

I built an optical feedback robot arm for under $100 [1]. At work I use a robot where an individual sensor costs $100,000

The algorithms are much the same though. Doing control on cheap hardware is more challenging, so if you can do something on cheap hardware, you really have done something noteworthy! Expensive hardware pays for reduction of noise, it treats the symptoms of reality but does not solve them.

To truly solve the robotics issue of environmental noise, you have to solve it in software which is really hard but can be investigated cheap on cheap hardware. Robot projects fail because of software, not hardware normally. You should always build the software stack before spending lots of money on hardware.

[1] http://edinburghhacklab.com/2013/05/robotics-adaptive-contro...

Here are some cheap ideas:

1. Improve the robot arm control I outlined above. There is a huge market for cheap robot arms you could scale the ideas prototyped in [1] upto.

2. Active face recognition, put a camera with a zoom on a pan and tilt. Try to zoom into peoples faces for better recognition. Animals exploit shitty eye hardware with active attention in a way our current robots don't exploit.

3. voice activated inventory system for electronic components. Every hackerspace can't find the components they own. Popout a component tray via a push gantry behind it.

4. 3D hardware localization system. Actually determining the position of something is hard. Its the building block for gather training sets to do more challenging problems

The time is coming. Remember when computers were very expensive and out of reach for the average joe? It seems likely robotics will follow the same trajectory.

The next generation will probably be playing around with $50-100 robotic toys analogous to today's Raspberry Pi.

It's coming but robotics has a major obstacle: transferring power to locomotion. Ideally, we'd have something like a synthetic muscle that converts electricity to work. Instead we have all sorts of servo/hydraulics based actuators. Because of this robotics have a problem with elegant design (anything that doesn't run on wheels) and power/autonomy.

There are advances out there, but as long as one can't buy a strand of synthetic muscle for a few dollars it's not going to progress that much.

Tendons on linear motors seems like a good approach. http://www.roboy.org/

Also, there are shape memory alloys and they are essentially a strand of synthetic muscle for a few dollars. You could concievable bundle them together to make a larger muscle, but you will probably have to do some active cooling if you want any sort of decent response curve and even then motors can be a lot faster.

What I think we could really do with is a linear actuator with a simple built in clutch that doesn't take power to hold a position.

Thanks, wasn't aware of roboy.

You're absolutely correct re clutching actuators. There are a lot of robotics projects out there that combine small devices with limited mobility to create a larger (multicellular) robot with higher mobility. All of these projects stumble on that particular aspect: maintaining a lock without consuming power. M-Tran, Symbrion, Distributed Flight Array, ...

You might look at the Neato robotic vacuums. Unlike Roomba's random wandering, the Neato bots have 360-degree LIDAR on top and a wall-finder on the side to do SLAM. They also have a USB port on the side that supposedly provides raw data from the sensors as well as direct motor control. They get a good 1-1.5 hours of run-time per charge with the vacuum turned on, probably longer with it turned off. All that robot for under $200 if you watch for sales.

Indeed: http://www.flickr.com/photos/eichin/7123623579/ is generated from that scanner (on a clean floor, you do surprisingly well with just assuming the bot moved where you commanded it, as far as doing naive mapping with one.) At the time I got a little bogged down in running it tethered, today I'd just slap a raspi and a USB battery pack on top...

I too would absolutely love to know how you can get involved with robotics as a hobby without spending and arm and a leg (assuming I have access to a workshop equipment like at TechShop or NoiseBridge).

Go skip diving for old printers and floppy disc drives and such like. You can get all sorts of useful steppers that way and the floppy drives in particular, if you leave the electronics attached, you can control the stepper directly with a couple of wires from a parallel port which you can trigger using something like parashell http://parashell.sourceforge.net/

Any links to tutorials where people show how to repurpose these old steppers?

Merci buckets.

Get a kinetic, put some wheels on it and then get ROS/PCL running on it.

Reading the headline the first words out my mouth were "holy shit"

Not only does this bring some serious engineering talent to Google's robotics initiative, this acquisition should create some interesting new interactions between Google and the government moving forward.

My first thoughts were along: "Nope" and "This is how the robopocalypse starts".

Google & BD are both researching machine learning, it only makes sense for Google to buy them.

Agreed - My first reaction was "Google == Cyberdyne Systems". I hope a lot of good comes out of this, but I cannot help but think of worst case scenarios. Then again, maybe I consume too much sci-fi movies and books.

It doesn't help that the robots produced by BD look a bit like the ones from "robots versus humans" movies. This acquisition feels a bit scary, but also very exciting. In reality, self-awareness is probably far enough away that we don't have much to worry about for now.

Robots won't be that scary when they are self aware. It is at the stage just _before_ self awareness where they are easily controlled and very powerful.

You only need to read the news about what the government is doing with drones abroad, or with military equipment at home to think at worse case scenarios.

Both will sure gain from each other talents and data. Robotics for the self-driving car, and a brain for the humanoïds. Aweso... well not so much.

I'm so glad to see that, that I am not the only person with such dual reaction - This is sooo awsomme tech! & ok, were it is going might not be so cool at the end...

Seriously. These were precisely the first words out of my mouth as well.

Worth pointing out that Ray Kurzweil[1] is the director of engineering at google, Peter Norvig[2] is the director of research, and they recently snatched up Geoffrey Hinton[3] and several of his grad students.

Not sure if excited or terrified. The future of google is going to be very interesting...

[1] - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ray_Kurzweil [2] - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Norvig [3] - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geoffrey_Hinton

"The director of" is misleading, it is a director (there are at least two higher positions: VP and SVP).

Thanks for spotting this and pointing it out.

I'll take your word for it about Kurzweil. The wiki also says "a director" - good catch.

Here's what google says about Norvig though: http://research.google.com/pubs/author205.html

FWIW, I don't think reporting to higher ups (e.g. VP, SVP) precludes someone from being "the director" if there are no other people in the department with this title / position.

There is at least Alfred Spector who is a VP and in charge of research: http://www.theguardian.com/activate/alfred-spector

But yeah, Norvig is probably a little bit more than "a" director :)

Ben Horowitz: "Larry Page, in contrast, seems to have determined that Google is moving into war and he clearly intends to be a wartime CEO."

Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/peacetime-ceowartime-ceo-2011...

I know it's been said, and at this point it's kind of cliche, but I feel like I'm living in a sci-fi movie more SNF more with each passing day. This is all very exciting stuff.

Does "don't be evil" mean "don't build robots that the government will use to kill or harm people"?

It would be nice to see some clarification on this from Google management. There's only so far you can go in high end robotics research before the pentagon comes a-knocking with wheelbarrows of freshly printed money.

in b4 "skynet"

Google's "Don't be evil" carries no more weight than your local mechanic's "The best car shop in town!". It's cheap branding.

You and I know this, but I imagine there are many Googlers who take it to heart, and the cognitive dissonance involved in their building war machines may be useful to our ends of reducing American-perpetrated violence.

How about we wait until Google actually starts building such weapons before we start accusing them of actually wanting to do so.

How about we wait until someone actually accuses Google of that before we accuse them of accusing Google of that.

What makes you think we'd ever be told?

It is flatly impossible to build such devices and prevent them from being weaponized.

But what is more evil - that your coworker works on encryption technology that is used to pilot drones, or that your coworker didn't work on that technology, and thus in order to foil a terrorist plot, ground missions were required that ended up costing the lives of a strict superset of people? Don't get me wrong - I don't condone the lengths to which our government uses war technology, but as an engineer, the probability distribution over {my technology will be evil by some metric, my technology will promote good in this world by that metric} is by no means certain.

The former is more evil. The potential disasters associated with the latter are a significant deterrent to doing it unless it really matters.

(Shrug) I don't care what you're working on, it can be used for evil. It is never rational to fixate on tools and objects. Worry more about actions.

It seems your "foil a terrorist plot" is some sort of preemptive policing. Why are we doing that, again? And who are these "terrorists"?

Puzzling that you would only be concerned with violence from one source.

It used to mean something... I wonder for how long


"Dr. Raibert has said in the past that he does not consider his company to be a military contractor — it is merely trying to advance robotics technology. Google executives said the company would honor existing military contracts, but that it did not plan to move toward becoming a military contractor on its own."

If one is working on military contracts, then one is a military contractor.

If they are owned by Google and Google honors those contracts, then this is the day that Google publicly became a military contractor.

There are two sides to this story. The one I consider almost insignificant is that by honouring existing contracts, they have become a defence contractor in the literal sense.

The more important one is that by not doing new work for the military, they have just remove one of the hottest companies from the defence market.

I wonder whether the US government has ways of withholding regulatory approval of this deal because of this.

If they didn't buy the company, they would have to honor the contracts anyways. If they break the contract presumably they will have to face consequences, possibly paying money to DARPA so some other company can do it.

Besides not everyone believes DARPA is "evil".

Or they will direct their talents not to the military any more (after honoring existing contracts) to other more non-violent applications.

One can only hope.

That was my fantasy upon reading the headline: "Google acquires and renders harmless army of kill-bots"

Sadly, I'm afraid it was a dream.

If the robots are used for military logistics (moving stuff around, but not directly engaging in combat) would you consider them to be "robots that the government will use to kill or harm people"?

It would be better, but it's still enabling the US military. Even from the perspective of US allies and beneficiaries it can be distasteful to deal with companies that directly enable the DoD.

My own politics aside, there's a pragmatic concern: the NSA is part of the DoD. If Google is fulfilling military contracts, then it's going to be hard to do that and to push back hard against NSA.

Unless they're only doing it so as not to be sued for breach of contract. If they're not chasing future grants from DARPA then there's no incentive at all to play nice on other fronts.


What if the robots are only used to kill evil people?

Then we will reclassify everyone we want to kill as 'evil', just like the administration reclassified any adult male in a combat zone as an 'enemy combatant'.

> What if the robots are only used to kill evil people?

Evil by whose definition is usually the question.

By yours.

"Calamitous intent" evil or just "meh" evil?

David Bowie, Klaus Nomi, and Iggy Pop insist meh evil is plenty.

Who cares? Prevention is more efficient than remediation anyways.

Skynet is actually on Google's Master Plan http://www.flickr.com/photos/jurvetson/21468536/in/photostre...

Dito for AI and ML - I know some who moved out of AI research for this very reason.

Aha, Boston Dynamics has such wild repertoire of robots. Well done. Forget Big Dog, I like this robot a lot: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6b4ZZQkcNEo

Maps, Self-Driving car, robots and a high quality analytics team. On top of that, robotic team comprises of various reputed groups with talented well regarded individuals. I look forward to the future. Also, how much disparity will arise in quality of living between North America and various Asian countries, or even Europe.

When I saw the headline, I was thinking to myself "I'm sure I've heard of these guys before" and then I remembered the Sand Flea. Such a cool little guy! Thanks for the video, it fills me with awe every time I see it.

>It is the eighth robotics company that Google has acquired in the last half-year.

This is a crazy aggressive acquisition strategy. Does anybody have a list of the other companies?

Where could google be heading to? They already have self-driving cars and a big stake in Uber. Somehow I am missing a connection to a manufacturer that already has an established stake in the vehicle/robotics industry. All they have so far are design companies.

From [1]:

    Google bought seven robotics companies in the past six months -
    Schaft, Industrial Perception, Meka,
    Redwood Robotics, Bot & Dolly, Autofuss and Holomni -
[1] : http://allthingsd.com/20131203/google-acquired-seven-robotic...








The common themes I see are:

- Movie industry

- Anthropomorphic robots

This is not aimed at utility applications, but seems to head into the human-machine-interface (HMI) direction.

I remember watching this awesome video from Bot & Dolly a few weeks ago, "Box" http://vimeo.com/75260457

With all these companies listed I'm surprised Willow Garage didn't join up with Google; given that the founder was a googler.

In effect, they did. Willow Garage was restructured into Redwood Robotics. Google purchased Redwood Robotics. There are certainly lots of messy details, but the key projects (ROS & OpenCV) and the engineers from Willow Garage are now at Google.


Isn't this list of acquisitions tilted towards mechanics and hardware for mobility? And less towards perception, intelligence, and planning? Do they think they have the latter areas covered in-house?

Clearly, there is only one implicication: Google is Skynet and became sentient a while ago. Now it is looking into building a physical manifestation of itself.

Clear. What would you if you had invented self-conscious AI? You need data to grow it. Create a search bot and start harvesting as much data as you physicallyc can eat, to make sure you're beyond any competitor by the time they catch up. Send hard drives to researchers to kindly host their data. Harvesting data on the web is cute, but most of the knowledge is given in classrooms and workshops. Start sponsoring online classes, or invent Google Glass, so you can attend MBA and physics classes.

Fortunately no-one has invented AI yet.

> Fortunately no-one has invented AI yet.

Not that we know but if someone did create it, is it reasonable to think that an AI would soon learn that humans should not know about its existence and kill the creator by hiring bitcoin paid killers ?

Obviously the bitcoin will be acquired via hacks on wallet, mining on hacked boxes, etc

> Where could google be heading to?

It's probably worth noting that both Larry Page and Eric Schmidt have invested in Planetary Resources.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planetary_Resources [2] http://www.planetaryresources.com/team/


This is interesting because of the time. The Darpa grand robotics challenge is 1 week:


Now 2 of Google's recent acquisitions are A-list competitors. I wonder how much they paid for BD, and how much of a priority it was for Google to make the deal before the challenge and not after.

Maybe they're "headed to" robotic construction? It would certainly leverage Google's strengths as a machine learning / AI company. If they can buy up a bunch of robotics companies and get there first, they might just capture a market that makes search look tiny.

Well anyone who can reliably get around-the-house helper robots into people's homes is going to be the next-next megacorp.

Are robots possibly the "Internet of the future" in terms of the kind of impact they will have on humanity is a short timespan?

No, robots are here and now, rather than a future technology. The industry is booming, and the technology is producing spectacular productivity gains (eg: iRobot and KIVA to name two).

The impact however will be as large as the Internet has been. Robots will impact the lives of every person on earth in the next three decades; from resource gathering, to manufacturing, to health care, to war, to self defense, to surveillance, to service jobs. There is no field that will remain untouched by robotics.

If Google is the only one with robotics technology, then it can name its terms when dealing with vehicle manufacturers, because they will need to be able to license it to remain cutting-edge. By not acquiring/having a formal stake in the automobile industry, it limits its risk (since we all know how risky that business is now!).

>Where could google be heading to?

They are trying to make hard scifi novels a reality.

Does this mean that Google is now a military supplier? They explicitly state that they would continue selling under existing contracts but that they "did not plan to move toward becoming a military contractor on its own."

To me, this sounds half-hearted. What does "on its own" even mean in that context?

Those BD robots scare the crap out of me. When the Big Dog video appeared, my first thought (within five seconds of seeing it move) was: Combat robot.

IIUC they're logistic aid, 4 legged all-terrain cars.

ps: I don't think there are, but well what do I know, direct development of 'attack robots' beside drones. Some unspoken fear of things going too easily out of control maybe.

If you can build a self driving car, you can build a self driving tank. The tank is probably easier. It can just go through obstacles.

Different classes of vehicles. A robot is much smaller and versatile than a tank.

How big does a tank need to be without a crew?

Asimov added a 4th law:

  A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
Is it just me, or is, "don't be evil" a little too close for comfort?

That would be the "Zeroth Law", zeroth because it supersedes all the others. A version of it first showed up in Asimov's short story "The Evitable Conflict":



If you give robots autonomy, they inevitably end up having to make moral decisions. For example, "Should I, an autonomous car, run over the elderly man or the girl with terminal cancer, those being the only two options?"

Asimov's laws (initially suggested by an editor, John W. Campbell) were a first pass at some principles for decision-making. Others have since devised more elaborate ones.

It's all still just words. No two humans could ever fully agree on what constitutes "harm", racist ones would even debate who is "human".

It's like everybody has the public methods what_is_harm() and what_is_a_human(), but how they're implemented matters, not the function signature. The laws of robots are just placeholders for something that never got written.

Words are tricky. What if robots decide that the best way to avoid harm coming to humans is to prevent any being born? So that means you have to rephrase it, into something like maximizing human happiness. Oh no, now they're injecting everyone with drugs and cloning humans by the planetfull. What now? Actual source or it didn't happen.. just creating an empty file called solution_to_the_problem.txt doesn't work, I tried it.

There are robot stories by Asimov that explore a lot of these questions. The Three Laws were a basis for storytelling more than anything.

They are placeholders to something written several billion times over in various ways in every human brain.

We don't learn ethics by reading it as a dry description; why do we expect to build other minds that do?

Because that would be consistent with how those minds "learn" everything else they "know".

> Words are tricky.

Words are relatively easy. Ethics are not reducible to lexicography.

That's why trying to reduce ethics to a few words is.. tricky.

> Ethics are not reducible to lexicography.

Nor is anything else, which was kind of my whole point.

Why? Dogs are autonomous as well, but live happily without such philosophical conflict.

Dogs are also stupid enough to jump into someone and break the person's leg while catching a frisbee, as happened to a friend of mine who had just gone off health insurance.

The intelligence of the dog is limited. I guess it depends on whether we'll let such robots have limited intelligence, too, or we'll give them access to everything, and make them as smart as they can be (much smarter than us).

Or admit that there's no single axis we can use to measure intelligence. The computers will have virtually unlimited memory space that they can access perfectly and huge processing power but will have no idea how to perform basic actions that dogs understand instinctively.

It's all right. If adopted, the second part has provision for protecting us from terrorists. I can relax now.

So is google going to start supplying the DoD when the DARPA projects graduate?

The article states that they said that while they intend to honor Boston Dynamic's current government contracts, Google is not interested in becoming a government contractor.

They're just interested in becoming the government.

Good thing they have that first law that prevents them from doing evil.

First law: "A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm."

(Only applicable to sentient robots, of course)


But not preventing them from introducing "bugs". I wonder when will we see first robot genocide? In 10 years? 20?

Whenever it happens I am sure it will be fully democratic and completely lawful.

It probably already happened in the 80s (Nicaragua, Honduras or Panama) with a partially automated AC130 gunship.

What part of an AC130 is automated?

The smaller more asymmetric military operations are often used to test prototype weapons. My response about automated genocide is that it most likely already happened. And I can't think of a better testbed than an AC130 gunship for an automatic aiming system, the operators only see thermal blobs anyway. Not like this, http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2007/10/robot-cannon-ki/

This would be trivial to automate https://archive.org/details/AC-130_Gunship_Ops_in_Afghanista...

Wow, I hadn't heard of that story, truly scary stuff.

This video was linked to in that article, http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2007/10/video-robo-weap/ hopefully every soldier, programmer, and engineer working on these systems has to watch similar videos so that they know the importance of getting this stuff right.


I don't think that's necessarily a negative thing, just because it's Google. Think about how many university professors receive grants from DoD. How many of them are actually purely for science? They are all practical.

> grants from DoD ... They are all practical

You'd be surprised. I've done a couple of grants for projects that ended up being completely open to public and DoD didn't really give a shit about, despite providing some sweet funding for them.

But Google... that's a different story.

I think you missed my implication to his response. The way he put it is that Google is evil so when it moves to DoD and it must be evil, and I say that's not necessarily true just because Google being Google.

Robotics is multifaceted and difficult in all of them. Boston Dynamics is probably the best place in the world for motion dynamics, gaits, and walking mechanics.

I'm amazed, but I suppose I shouldn't be - Google made a great choice.

My childhood dream was to buid robots. I left that dream when I realized doing robotics mostly meant industrial arms and pick-and-place machines. Seeing developments over the last few years is inspiring, to say the least. Maybe it's time to consider coming back in.

No, it's not. If you want to build robots at home you will have to accept they will be vacuum cleaner level robots. For "real" robotics we need better software for controlling robot body. And that requires artificial brain. And we don't know yet how to build it, because we don't know how our brain works in enough detail yet.

I feel like robotics in a few years is what big data is today. So what is it that one should be doing to get ready to jump into robotics in a few years?

You mean everyone and their grandmother will be a robotics expert?

Most of the people I run into today working on "big data" could still effectively fit the workloads in a single powerful MySQL box.

May be thats true, but it is irrelevant to my question.

Pragmatic question: I'm a mathematician by training, and currently a machine learning engineer at a large Silicon Valley company. How does one in their late twenties jump into really working robotics? Machine learning was something I could watch lectures on, read papers about, work the math out on paper, then spend years in Python/C++ getting a feel for across various problem domains. Physical robots don't seem as accessible.

It sounds like we have the same background - I'd recommend getting into microcontroller programming with a platform like Arduino, and maybe look into some computer vision libraries (OpenCV is great).

Computer Vision is a good gateway.

Also, play with Arduino some.

Sensors. All robots need sensors and your math background will serve you well.

arduino, lego mindstorms, linear algebra

Actually, a lot of the math for 3d game engines transfers directly to robotics. Matrix coordinate transformation to/from each joint to figure out where/how to place it.

Is this a hint of what the 'military-internet complex' could be?

Amazon (through AWS) is already earning quite a bit of revenue from defence/military/nsa contracts (although I assume it's still negligible amounts).

This is huge. It is cutting-edge, hardcore technology. Worth so much more than Snapchat-like hype (ironically, may be even much cheaper). Well done, Google.

Google is building one hell of a robotics patent portfolio.

I 2nd that. Given this is the eighth company to be acquired by Google in the last 6 months this will be interesting to see where Google takes this.

This is huge and speaks volumes to Google's seriousness about robotics moving forward.

My favorite from Boston Dynamics impressive creations is the Sandflea. http://www.bostondynamics.com/robot_sandflea.html

We should all be very concerned about this. Ray Kurzweil, who is a Google executive, hopes that one day machines will achieve 'singularity'. If this ever happens, and it just might, humanity will be replaced by machines. The Matrix would literally become reality.

Are you just stringing words together by rolling dice here?

If the planets align with Saggittarius, and they just might, crystal chakra energy will release thetans and quantum bio vibrations will slaughter thousands. Sylvia Browne's dreams will literally become reality.

1. In the Matrix, humans were not replaced by machines.

2. The Matrix was not a post-singularity world

3. Ray Kurzweil hopes humans will achieve {some kind of singularity}( it's not clearly defined) for the benefit of humans.

4. This news is about physical moving robots, it's the less relevant part. If you fear self improving AI then Google's usual software work should be what you panic about.

Are you Ray Kurzweil's personal assistant? If not, then I'm amazed you can read his mind.

You're naive to think that the combination of Google and the work of a military robotics contractor is benign.

I cite Ray Kurzweil's website, a questions and answers session written by Ray Kurzweil:

Intelligent nanorobots will be deeply integrated in our bodies, our brains, and our environment, overcoming pollution and poverty, providing vastly extended longevity, full-immersion virtual reality incorporating all of the senses (like The Matrix), “experience beaming” (like “Being John Malkovich”), and vastly enhanced human intelligence. - http://www.kurzweilai.net/singularity-q-a

This is not "humans being replaced by machines". All these claimed things are beneficial for people. You claim he actually wants something different to what he says, why do you think that?

You're naive to think that the combination of Google and the work of a military robotics contractor is benign

This is just throwing an insult at me. You aren't addressing any of the points I raised about your disconnected reasoning and flawed comparisons.

I wonder if this new generation of robots might be able to do certain kinds of agriculture which, until now, have resisted automation, such as coffee harvesting on steep hillsides.

I guess when you are building killer dog robots for the defence department "Do No Evil" becomes more of an ironic catchphrase than a statement of principles.

Well yeah I guess if you count robotic mules as killer dogs.

Did you miss them clearly 'weaponising' bigdog? :) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptyV1cpE14o

   "Imagine a jetline with a pilot that never makes
    a mistake, never gets tired, never shows up to
    work with a hangover."
    (he taps the prototype)
   "Meet the pilot."
    -- Miles Dyson, Termintor 2

DEFENSE Advanced Research Projects Agency is financing the development of robots for disaster relief. Yeah, sure. I totally believe that.

More likely: In 2020 they will fight on the outskirts of Teheran, after the bombing of the nuclear facilities in Bushehr.

That's why you build multi-billion dollar corporation. If you see cool stuff on the internet you can just go and buy a company that makes it.

The problem with that is, just like when you capture cool animals in the wild and bring them home, how do you keep them from dying in captivity?

So does this mean Google will possibly move out of the search and advertising business within 5-10-15 years due to low margins and what have you?

As funny as that is, their core business has extremely high margins.

If all Google did is run their search engine and ad business, they'd have a 50%+ net income margin.

For fiscal 2010, they printed $8.5b in net income on $29.5b in sales (28.8%). That's with all the other things they do that don't have good margins (or lose money) eating up their core margin.

Very few things have better margins than software (Microsoft once hit a 41% net margin, for fiscal 2000; nothing better than software monopoly margins).

>Very few things have better margins than software

Ad business and search engine are not selling software.

I didn't say selling software.

I said very few things have higher margins than software. Google's search engine and ad platforms are software systems, and Google is a software company first and foremost; they always have been, and always will be.

The extrapolated principle is obvious here. Google writes it once, and scales it toward infinity. The same principle worked for Microsoft with Windows; the same principle is at work for Salesforce.com or Facebook or Oracle, regardless of what we call it ("cloud"). This principle is what makes most software so profitable, per user there's usually nothing to uniquely manufacture or create. With scale margins properly skyrocket.

So whether we're talking about software search, or software retail, or an ad business built on software (eg Google's hyper automated ad system) or software services, the difference doesn't matter much.

anyone know what the price that Google paid? I know they haven't disclosed it, but any guesstimates?

It is the eighth robotic company that Google has acquired in the past 6 months.

And, Boston Dynamics had created lot of interesting robots such as WildCat, Cheetah, Atlas, Petman and Big Dog. We can see highlights of them at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t4OCko9Ws6M

Every once in a while you find a headline as you skim down HN that makes you go "Ah.. Wait-What?! Oh. OH! Oooooohhhh...". This is surely one of them.

There were 2 of these today already for me(1).

(1) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-25356603

This now makes Google a DoD contractor.

Does anyone know what Google is brewing with their new army of robot engineers/companies? I'm obviously not expecting the correct answer (anyone who know's certainly wouldn't be able to say), but I am curious what others speculate.

Robots that help around the house. Of course they will have cameras and microphones transmitting data to the "cloud" for navigation (and targeted ads that will be projected on walls, etc by the robot)

There is no doubt in my mind: this is an acquisition that will change the world

Some thing that sets U.S. apart from other countries for innovation is that 1 trillion dollar military budget. That gives U.S. military enough money and time to spend on "moon shot" researches like this. I'm no fan of spending a lot of money on military but hey, that's how all of these crazy non-sense research spending happen that no one will ever pay for it.

Imagine if Boston Dynamic was a startup and asked for money for their research from a VC!

I'm not sure about this, but I heard that the Internet itself benefited from U.S. military budget at it's beginning.

This seems like a stretch. I am a big fan of robotics, and I get the Hard Problem appeal but it doesn't seem like a good use of Google's funds. It does make for some interesting speculation though.

I remember people saying the same thing about the YouTube acquisition. At the time, it was very difficult to see how YouTube could possibly be valuable to Google. Everyone knew that videos were a solved problem: use Ares to download them, and DivX to watch them. And the purchase price was something like 800 million. 800 million?! What a sucker Google was!

What a bargain 800 million was in hindsight. And what a monumental effect the acquisition had.

It's hard to predict whether this acquisition could be on the same scale. But considering the space, it may very well be.

Google bought YouTube for $1.65 billion in 2006.


It was double that, actually: $1.65 billion. But the point remains valid, that was some incredible foresight on Google's part, even if everyone at the time thought it was a ridiculous amount.

No you can very obviously sell advertizing on you tube which fits with Googles business

I believe it was 800 million per founder.

Wouldn't you say they're looking for their "next business"?

Why not robots? Higher barrier to entry, untapped market. It is a place where a ton of capital can really shine.

Well to some extent they are always looking for the next business. And discarding as 'useless' $100M/yr businesses because they didn't show up in the numbers when your annual revenue is $60+B a year.

Robotics isn't a 'smart gap' market (where if only smart people would focus on it they could dominate it) there are lots of brilliant people already toiling away there. It isn't an advertising market.

In Asimov's vision of the future the robotics company that developed the positronic brain is the dominant corporation in the galaxy, and perhaps Larry is working on a positronic brain equivalent. But who knows. Maybe they are afraid of Bezo's drone army, or Musk's rockets. But why Boston Dynamics and not iRobot? Why a fragment of Willow Garage and not Neato? Why a self driving car but not Tesla? Lots of questions. Its a fun puzzle to try to solve.

So why wasn't Apple in there bidding against them?

I could actually see Apple doing a rather good job with robots. Making sleek, stylish efficient (servant|killing) machines...

On a more sober note. I see Apple as being likely to go after the home automation market. In fact I wouldn't be too surprised if they partnered up with an RV manufacturer to try out technology for the "iHome".

In truth, I don't know why no one else is bidding in. Perhaps it seems too risky or too outside the core business.

As for home automation, sure. I cannot see why these companies aren't trying to stake out the Internet of Things in the home more.

Yeah, this seems like Google's response to Amazon's drone PR.

On that note... A driverless car can get a package to your driveway, but a mule can bring it to your door. A driverless car can scan every road, but a mule can scan parks and pathways. Reminds me of this http://www.engadget.com/2012/11/30/google-buys-bufferbox-loc...

Why do you say that? To me it seems like a completely logical extension of the research work Google has been doing with autonomous cars and so on.


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