July 3, 2014
Schaft and Boston Dynamics are the two robotics companies that recently took first and second place in the penultimate round of the DARPA Robotics Challenge. Both were bought by Google last December, and with an announcement from the new parent company late last month, both are now out of the competition. Google is swearing off any further cooperation with the US Defense Department in robotics. One can imagine at least three possibilities for the ultimate reason behind this sweeping decision:

We’re building our own droid army, thank you. Google has some grand projects at work, but for a company with the motto don’t be evil, this is unlikely.

We’re saving the world from Skynet. Graham Templeton has argued at ExtremeTech that this is the very motive behind the move. As there now will be no need for a Butlerian Jihad, everybody wins. More modestly, as Nick Prime argued on Kings of War, Google’s move could represent the beginning of another "Vietnam moment” in Silicon Valley, spurred on by Snowden revelations. But neither approach to this answer is wholly satisfactory. While Google has broad horizons and noble intentions, the company just isn’t as messianic as an Elon Musk enterprise.

All your robots are belong to us now. Rather, I suspect that Google is simply saying that it needs to amass a certain scale and scope in robotics research to achieve its goals, and that it has the money to do what it wants, without asking Uncle Sam. This is, after all, more-or-less Google’s official explanation of its decision. And Schaft and Boston Dynamics and self-driving cars are not all that Google has been doing. Alongside the story of the Schaft and Boston Dynamics acquisitions in December, the New York Times reported that Google had bought another six robotics companies in a variety of subfields:

  • Industrial Perception, in computer vision systems and robotic arms for loading and unloading trucks.
  • Meka, in humanoid robots and robotic arms
  • Redwood Robotics, a joint venture in the same field amongst Meka, SRI, and Willow Garage
  • Bot & Dolly, in robotic camera systems (recently used to create special effects in the movie Gravity)
  • Autofuss, in advertising and design for synthetic environments
  • Holomni, in omnidirectional wheels

It’s notable that most of those companies’ websites have gone dark and quiet. It’s not just that they’re back into stealth mode on Google projects. All of these businesses are now inaccessible by the military, and the loss of their technologies and design teams could be significant. Commenting on a story on The Verge, one observer at the Challenge last year described Schaft’s robots as "at least generation ahead of everything else there. It’s like seeing a machine built by an advanced alien species.” Apart from this endorsement, I had already heard talk of defense industry executives grousing about their customers’ “Google envy”, an unfulfilled desire for the Glass in every infantryman’s helmet, or something like that. The twin pullouts from the Robotics Challenge suggest something more—that Google is beginning to have global military implications, and not in a wholly good way for the US government.

So what is DARPA to do? How ever will it build its Cylons (er, rescue robots) if Google keeps buying all the promising suppliers? I’ll cover that this weekend in part two of this essay.

James Hasik is a non-resident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

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