CYCLORAMA FEBRUARY 16, 2014
Given that it has billions in the bank, Google’s recent spending spree isn’t exactly a surprise. But the purpose of these acquisitions—seven robotics companies and other firms involved in design, cinematography, smartwatches, facial recognition, machine-learning, and more—remains mysterious. Is the company simply widening a revenue stream, with expensive new hardware to sell alongside upcoming inhouse projects? Or is it after something even more valuable: personal data. The more Google knows about its customers, the more it can claim to know what they want—even if their customers don’t know it themselves. How far can Google go without its paternalism showing through, without crossing what Chairman Eric Schmidt calls “the creepy line”? Hoping to find out, we looked at the company’s most hightech trophies to rate their potential impact, from the banal to the apocalyptic.
Holomni’s wheels will help future Google ’bots make sharp, quick maneuvers. Picture precision-engineered, powered versions of the wheels on your desk chair. worst-case scenario: Ever choose a shopping cart, only to find it’s the one with the gummed-up wheel? Now imagine that wheel is attached to a cranky robot.
Makani makes kite-bound, airborne wind turbines, which theoretically could reach more powerful winds than their terrestrial equivalents. A fanciful, technologically sophisticated project that sounds good in theory but may never work? That’s a perfect acquisition for Google, with its love of moon shots. worst-case scenario: A Makani kite collides midair with the drone that has been watching you, resulting in a temporary power outage.
Google is going long on wearable tech, so it makes sense that it’d snap up a smartwatch company. There may be a market opening here, as Samsung is currently the only major player in the field. worst-case scenario: Google rolls out another data-rich, privacy-poor device that requires daily charging. After six months, the watch disappears into the bowels of your dresser.
Bot & Dolly uses highly refined robot arms to film incredible videos. You’ve probably seen its work in Gravity, for which the company helped director Alfonso Cuarón simulate (mostly) accurate zero-g physics. worst-case scenario: Google’s press events become haunting propaganda spectacles—the Singularity meets the opening ceremonies from Beijing.
Bot & Dolly’s former sister company, Autofuss, is a Swiss army knife of a design firm, using robots, CGI, and new video technologies to create commercials, stop-motion animation, and other media projects. It has already worked with Google on a Nexus smartphone commercial featuring a balletic set of robot arms. worst-case scenario: After losing an internal power struggle to Bot & Dolly, the Autofuss team is exiled to a data center near the Arctic Circle. Robot cameras capture the descent into cannibalism.
Designed for diabetics, Google’s proto-type contact lens features a glucose meter and a tiny transmitter. It’s not the first lens of its type, but it comes haloed with the Google mystique—and buoyed by the company’s bottomless pocketbook. worst-case scenario: You always wanted x-ray vision, and the closest you get is a contact that reminds you of your debilitating pancreatic malfunction.
Google’s ad network needs to know what customers are talking about on Gmail, YouTube, and other products; Wavii uses “natural-language-processing” to help computers understand the complexities of human language. worst-case scenario: Google’s robots start lecturing us with Eric Schmidt’s talking points. SXSW 2031 is super boring.
Industrial Perception makes vision systems, which help robots recognize objects and interact with their environments. Its slogan—“Providing robots with the skills they’ll need to succeed in the economy of tomorrow”—smacks of noblesse oblige, as if the company is trying to court the robot swing vote. worst-case scenario: Google actually is courting the robot swing vote. “Bots are people too, my friend,” Tagg Romney declares, having inherited his father’s mantle.
Nest’s two products—an Internet-connected thermostat and a similarly wired smoke / carbon-monoxide detector—are leaders in the burgeoning put-WiFi-in-it-and-call-it-“smart” category (aka: the Internet of Things). We’d feel better about these kinds of devices if they weren’t plagued by security problems and Silicon Valley’s congenital techno-utopianism. worst-case scenario: Nest continues rolling out expensive, sensor-laden products, helping to create a world in which Google controls your home—and tracks everyone within it.
This acquisition specializes in robots designed to make people feel comfortable working with them. Meka’s S2 face is quite expressive, while its anime-inspired look is supposed to be inviting. worst-case scenario: You wake up one morning and find a Meka has snatched your spouse’s place in bed beside you. Or has it?!
Mountain View’s self-driving car is a perfect distillation of Google’s vision: Collect tons of data so that you can relieve customers of the burden of certain essential tasks. The downsides of such a vision—suburban sprawl, a loss of autonomy, less investment in public transport—deserve more consideration. worst-case scenario: Google determines where we go and how we get there, ensuring that we become like the humans in WALL-E—helpless, chair-bound sloths, narcotized by entertainment and advertising.
Schaft is known for its Intelligent Robot Kernel—an operating system, basically—and its high-powered, water-cooled motors. The company’s showpiece robot is freakishly strong and looks a little too much like it walked off the Transformers backlot. worst-case scenario: Schaft’s robot brains and advanced motors help fuel an automation boom, leading to systemic unemployment. In his first act as president, Tagg Romney slashes your welfare benefits.
Google’s computer for your face is the ultimate product for our surveillance culture. It’s obtrusive, expensive, power-hungry, and makes people uncomfortable in ways they can’t quite articulate. It’ll probably be a huge hit. worst-case scenario: Not only do we replace our own views of the world with Google’s, but we like it.
The Massachusetts company achieved viral fame for its bizarre and strangely frightening videos of ambulatory robots. Whether cheetahs, pack-mules, or towering humanoids, Boston Dynamics’ creations are a favorite of darpa, the secretive Pentagon research agency, as well as armchair futurists. worst-case scenario: Google’s new subsidiary signs contracts to build even more robots for the Defense Department; disastrous, robot-led covert wars provide a painful interlude before the inevitable Skynet-like uprising.