Updates Fridays

Would Everyone Please Calm Down About the Robot Revolution?

I’ve posted a few times about various projects coming out of the Massachusetts based company Boston Dynamics in the last year. They make nifty robots, and I like nifty robots, so I write about them sometimes. You might remember my recent post about the new Atlas robot or a slightly older post that featured their long-running project, BigDog.

Well, the big news last week was that Boston Dynamics parent company, Alphabet inc. (yes, that’s Google, in case you weren’t sure) is going to be selling the company.

Why, you ask? That’s a good question. That’s the question that I’m asking.

So, this gets a little complicated. Alphabet originally acquired Boston Dynamics in 2013 in an acquisition spree with the intent of establishing a robotics division, a program that was called “Replicant.” Yes, like in Blade Runner, a story in which the company that created the robots is EVIL. Pro tip: don’t make the name of your program refer to a commonly known sci-fi trope which will cause most people hearing it to immediately associate you with a dystopia. Not good for business.

There were a lot of people in the Replicant program, but I guess Boston Dynamics never really merged with the rest of it, and sort of stayed its own thing? And I guess they were sort of hard to work with? Anyway, when Alphabet finally realized that robotics was not going to be a quick source of profit, they folded the Replicant program into Google X, their advanced research department, where profits are less of a concern. But they decided not to move Boston Dynamics over there, and to sell the company instead.

I’m pretty much just summarizing what I got from this Bloomberg article, here. Business is not my strong suit, so I’m not claiming to have any insight into Google’s internal structure or profit models.

So, was that it? Did Google just realize that modern robotics has a long way to go before it can be an easy source of profit? Or was there more to it?

A lot of people seem to think that there was more to it. And this is the part that is interesting to me. It seems that there is some indication that Google wanted to distance itself from what many were perceiving as a “scary” robot.

Somehow Bloomberg got ahold of some internal emails sent by people at Google. In one of them, Courtney Hohne, a director of communications at Google and the spokeswoman for Google X wrote in reference to the Atlas robot: “There’s excitement from the tech press, but we’re also starting to see some negative threads about it being terrifying, ready to take humans’ jobs.”


Okay, look, I get that I’m not working with great information here. A fragment of a quote taken from a leaked email is not exactly rock hard evidence about what was really going on. But seriously, please someone tell me that this isn’t what it sounds like. Tell me that Google didn’t really base a major business decision on responses to a single YouTube video that went viral on Facebook.

I mean, come on, half the responses to that video that I saw were jokes about the robot revolution! Those jokes were TOO EASY. Hell, I made a ton of them in my post about the video, too! It’s low-hanging fruit. It doesn’t mean that I was actually scared of the robot.

And similarly, yes, I made a joke about Atlas taking people’s jobs. Specifically I said “people whose job is pretty much just moving boxes in warehouses all day should be thinking about updating their resume.” WHICH WAS A JOKE. Seriously, Amazon replaced their box-moving employees with robots years ago, and those robots are like WAAAAY more efficient at it then Atlas. Here, look, there’s a video.

Look, people, this is what it comes down to: humanoid robots are really really hard to make. Let’s face it, Atlas managed to move those boxes, but he was BAD at it. No one is going to hire him for anything.

Atlas was designed (Is being designed? Will have been designed? It’s still a work in progress, is what I mean) for disaster rescue operations. They want a robot that can move like a human so it can navigate like a human would, and use any tools a human could, in unpredictable, treacherous terrain. Like DANGEROUS DISASTER AREAS. If your job involves possibly dying in horribly dangerous circumstances to help people, then yes, this robot might take your job someday. And you should give it to them. Because seriously, why would you do that if you didn’t have to?

The robots that are going to take most people’s jobs wont look human, because they will be better designed for the task at hand than humans are. That’s why they will get the job instead of you. So when researchers are working on humanoid robots, you shouldn’t be scared. The scary robots look totally different. When the revolution comes, our new overlords will look nothing like us. There will be no Cylons, no replicants. There will be strange-looking, highly specialized, single-task units for every job imaginable, including KILLING YOU.

(Um, that was a joke. Apparently some people are having trouble telling, so I thought I would mention it.)

So in conclusion: calm down people!

Google: people on the internet are stupid and/or joking most of the time when commenting on videos. Don’t take anything they have to say seriously, and DEFINITELY don’t make your business decisions based on it.

Internet: I know that non-human things that look human are scary on some sort of primal, instinctual level, but seriously, you are being scared of the wrong thing. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be scared of the robot revolution. I’m just saying that you are looking in the wrong direction.

You should be scared of these guys: