In 2013, Google acquired eight companies specializing in robotics, and many have asked what Google will do with all those robots.
The eighth company wa
s Boston Dynamics, which through funding by DARPA has developed a couple of high-profile animal-like robots and the two-legged humanoid Atlas.
A week after that acquisition, Google became the world’s robot king when one of the companies previously bought won the final trials of the DARPA Robotics Challenge–a competition where robots are expected to manage tasks like climbing a ladder, punch a hole through a wall, drive a car and close valves. Second was a team that used the Atlas robot.
Google’s interest in robots should be seen in the broader context of its other ventures–everything from the digital glasses Google Glass and driverless vehicles to its established services–web search, maps, Street View, videos, the Android OS, web-based office applications and Gmail. Plus the latest big acquisition at $3.2 billion–Nest Labs, that develops the self-learning thermostat Nest and the connected smoke detector Protect.
The common denominator is data. Large amounts of data about what users are doing and thinking, about where they go and what the world looks like.
It fits the robot venture. As robots are becoming more capable they will perform increasingly sophisticated tasks and gradually take over many jobs from humans. During their work, they will collect huge amounts of data, about everything , everywhere in the world.
It is not obvious that Google will have access to all this data. Nest for example, has made it clear that the company’s policy on privacy remains firm after the takeover, and that data from thermostats may only be used to ‘improve products and services’.
But Google has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to offer attractive free services where users willingly share their data in exchange for the service.
Added to this is Google’s focus on learning machines and advanced artificial intelligence — most recently through the acquisition of the British AI company Deep Mind for over $2 billion, and also through the recruitment of futurist and entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil as chief engineer last year (Ray Kurzweil’s latest book is called How to Create a Mind).
If it is possible to develop an artificial consciousness in a machine, one may ask how far such a consciousness reaches. One way to respond–which I touched in this post–is to relate to a human being that reaches as far as her body and its senses. An artificial consciousness would then by analogy be limited to the sensors it controls in order to collect data.
Google is then in a good position. And though I don’t believe that Google has any evil plans at all, this scares me far more than the surveillance in which NSA and other intelligence agencies are engaged, combined.
Interception and surveillance will never give nearly as much data about us as Google can get, and it can be regulated. What Google will do with all the data that we willingly share is something no-one else can control.
(This post was also published in Swedish in Ny Teknik).