Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Autonomous This and That. Where Will Google's Robot Obsession Lead?

While I was contemplating my snow-shoveling duties last weekend, I was intrigued to stumble across a New York Times piece about a quiet acquisition made by Google. Apparently, the company now owns Boston Dynamics, which makes robots that are being designed to run faster than humans.

A video of one of them, called WildCat, appears below. (This one has been clocked at about 16 miles per hour so far.)


What's just as intriguing is that this is the EIGHTH robotics company that Google has picked up over the past year, reports the Times. All of this stuff rolls up under Andy Rubin, the executive who was in charge of the Android smartphone operating system.

Veteran tech reporter John Markoff notes:
Boston Dynamics’ walking robots have a reputation for being extraordinarily agile, able to walk over rough terrain and handle surfaces that in some cases are challenging even for humans.

The speculation is that Google is trying to build autonomous systems that could handle everything from package delivery to eldercare. It already has been playing around with self-driving cars for years. A video of a test drive is below.


This all got me thinking about a study by research firm Latitude I squirreled away almost 11 months ago exploring how children perceive robots. Called Robots @ School, the research was published in collaboration with LEGO Learning Institute and Project Synthesis. It surrounds the central question: "What if robots were a part of your everyday life -- at school and beyond?"

Among the findings:


  • Nearly two-thirds of the participating children perceived robots as potential human friends, "humanoid peers that they could identify with and aspire to be like." 
  • When asked to imagine what their robots would be like, many of the children imagined ones that would be "patient and supportive" teachers. And they viewed robots both as potential playmates and study buddies.
"Robots support and encourage but don't judge," said Ian Schulte, director of technology and business development at Latitude, commenting on the research. "They don't run into scheduling conflicts, and they certainly don't ostracize kids for wrong answers or unconventional thinking. Because they're just mechanical enough, robots enable kids to grow and explore without regard for social stigmas that so often stifle learning and creativity."

The research centered on 350 "kid-innovators" in Australia, France, Germany, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States, ages 8 to 12. (Asia is the subject of a separate study.) As part of the research activities, the children were asked to draw pictures of their "imagined experiences. You can find some of the drawings on the link above.

While many of us probably find Google's attention to robotics a little disconcerting, it seems that the next generation is more to the idea of more autonomous systems that support the daily activities of humans. Should be interesting to see where this all goes.


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