Google’s hopelessly naive plan to build humanoid robots


cc Ricardo Diaz

Silicon Valley’s technology firms appear to be having midlife crises. Except when your executives grew up as nerds, the boyhood fantasies they’re living out are building drone armies and, in the case of Google, the replacement of humans with what are apparently humanoid robots.

Which isn’t to say that automation isn’t a good investment. At the end of World War II, 40% of the US population was involved in manufacturing, and today the figure is less than 10%—despite the fact that America makes more stuff than ever.

Today’s manufacturing workers are enormously more skilled and productive on account of the machines at their disposal. But none of those machines are humanoid. And yet, according to the New York Times, that appears to be exactly the sort that Andy Rubin, former head of Android at Google, proposes to build.

(Not everyone agrees with this conclusion, by the way, and the entire Times piece on Google’s robots is thin on details. But for me, the acquisitions Rubin has made—two companies that work on humanoid robots, a lab with their carcasses hanging about, and the use case for the robots he proposes, all point to humanoid robots.)

Humans are the shape we are because of a million coincidences and contingencies of our evolution. The only reason to make a machine that looks and works like us would be if there were contexts in which it made more sense to leave existing factories and warehouses in their current, human-friendly state while filling them with anthropoid robots, rather than re-configuring them to accommodate robots custom built to their tasks.

Amazon has taken this latter approach, with its squat, R2 D2-like Kiva robots. And so has UPS, with its vast, belt-driven sorting centers, and countless automobile manufacturers.

Others have attempted humanoid robots—Baxter, which is friendly and accessible enough to be programmed by drunk journalists—is still mostly aimed at academics who want to experiment with robots rather than replace human workers, and there’s no evidence that Baxter is gaining traction outside the lab.

All humanoid robots have the same problem, which is that when you’re starting with a blank slate, it always makes more sense to create an automaton suited to the task at hand.

Humans are adaptable, which is our great strength. But until we get to the point that robots are so smart they’re making mid-career changes motivated by their own sense of impending mortality, it hardly makes sense to make them resemble us.

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