When Amazon bought a robotics company called Kiva Systems last year, it made perfect sense. Kiva makes robots that move things around warehouses; Amazon has a lot of warehouses full of a lot of stuff that needs moving around. Google, on the other hand, would seem to have no obvious need for robots, which is why it might appear odd that they just announced the purchase of Boston Dynamics, a company developing robots that mostly resemble animals and are designed to do things like carry equipment for soldiers, run fast, and jump really high. In fact, it's only the latest of a bunch of robotics companies Google has bought.
So what are they up to? In some ways, Google increasingly resembles a corporation out of a near-future sci-fi novel, one that begins by making some nice but (seemingly) not exactly world-transforming product, then that product turns out to be bigger than anybody imagined, then it gradually expands into one area after another until it controls practically the entire world. Eventually, the corporation becomes a nuclear power and wages war on its few remaining competitors, then becomes a practical one-world government. If that's their goal, a steady supply of robots would obviously be extremely useful.
In our reality, Google isn't that big, at least not yet. They rank 55th on the latest Fortune 500 list, behind a bunch of companies that are in more prosaic businesses like oil, retail, and banking. Nevertheless, it's hard to think of another corporation that goes as far afield from its basic product line in its research as Google does. Apple (which makes substantially more money than Google, by the way) does a lot of research, but it's mostly to come up with new products they're going to sell. Meanwhile, Google is working on things like driverless cars, pushing technology forward in ways that may not make them much money (if any at all) in the long run, for no obvious reason other than the fact that the company's leadership appears to think it's interesting.
I'm not a Google fanboy—like many companies, they do some very nice things and some less-nice things. But if I were Larry Page, this is the kind of enterprise I'd be getting into, too. When the company was formed, he and co-founder Sergey Brin had one shattering insight: that searching for things on the internet was going to be far more important than anybody else realized, and if you could make software that did it better than the alternatives, your company could become a behemoth. You'd have trouble finding anybody in the business of predicting the future who doesn't think robotics is going to be incredibly important to the world of 50 years from now (or sooner). So if you're Google and you've got billions of dollars to play with, why not make the future? Let's just hope they keep that "Don't Be Evil" thing in mind.
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