What does Google’s parent company Alphabet want with robots? Well, he would like them to clean the office, to begin with.
The company announced today that its Everyday Robots project – a team within its experimental X labs dedicated to creating a “general purpose learning robot” – moved some of its prototype machines out of the lab and onto the Bay campuses Area from Google to perform some light guard duties.
“We now operate a fleet of over 100 prototype robots that autonomously perform a range of useful tasks in our offices,” said Hans Peter Brøndmo, Director of Robots at Everyday Robot, in a blog post. “The same robot that sorts trash can now be equipped with a squeegee to wipe down tables and use the same pliers that grab cups can learn to open doors.”
These robots in question are essentially arms on wheels, with a multipurpose clamp at the end of a flexible arm attached to a central tower. There is a “head” at the top of the tower with cameras and sensors for machine vision and what looks like a rotating lidar unit on its side, presumably for navigation.
As Brøndmo points out, these robots were first seen sorting through recycling when Alphabet launched the Everyday Robot team in 2019. The big promise made by the company (as well as many other startups and competitors) is that machine learning will finally allow robots to operate in “unstructured” environments like homes and offices.
Right now we’re pretty good at building machines that can do repetitive jobs in a factory, but we’re confused when we try to make them duplicate simple tasks like cleaning a kitchen or folding laundry.
Think about it: you might have seen bots from Boston Dynamics backflip and dance to the Rolling Stones, but have you ever seen one take out the trash? This is because it is extremely difficult to get a machine to manipulate new objects in a new setting (which humans do every day). This is the problem Alphabet wants to solve.
Are you OK? Well, maybe someday if company executives find it worth spending millions of dollars on research to achieve that goal. Certainly, however, humans will be cheaper and more efficient than robots for these jobs for the foreseeable future. Today’s Everyday Robot update is interesting, but it’s far from a leap forward. You can see from the GIFs shared by Alphabet of its robots that they are always slow and clumsy, performing tasks inexperienced and at an icy pace.
However, it is still definitely Something that robots are tested “in the wild” rather than in the laboratory. Compare Alphabet’s machines to Samsung’s Handy Bot, for example; a similar-looking turn-and-arm robot that the company showcased at CES last year, apparently pouring wine and loading a dishwasher. At least Bot Handy looks as if he was doing this work, but in reality it was only a pre-set demonstration. Who knows how capable this robot is, if at all, in the real world? At least Alphabet finds out for himself.