London - Just imagine a future in which the word “Google” and the internet giant’s “Don’t Be Evil” motto is emblazoned on factory workers, delivery drivers, soldiers, housekeepers and care home staff. Apart from working for the world’s most powerful internet company, these workers would all have something else in common: they would all be robots.
The online search behemoth already dominates our lives to an extent that makes many of us uneasy, with its intrusive global mapping, shameless hoarding of our private data and Google Glass, the spectacle-style computers that will relay everything wearers see back to the company and its advertiser clients.
It’s even patenting an electronic throat tattoo that would allow wearers to issue voice commands to their smartphones, tablets and other devices.
Many of us don’t need any encouragement to think of the California-based multinational as a deeply creepy enterprise. Yet the news that it has been quietly buying up the world’s leading makers of robots and robotic parts has caused some surprise in the technology world.
When it emerged that Google has even bought a pioneering military robot maker, Boston Dynamics, curiosity turned to alarm. There has been talk of android apocalypse and comparisons to Skynet -the evil artificial intelligence system in the Terminator science-fiction films, which tries to blot out humanity with its killer robots.
Boston Dynamics certainly makes some scary stuff: animal-like and human-like machines with eerily realistic running, lifting and jumping abilities that could transform a future battlefield.
Its creations include BigDog, whose four human-like legs are so nimble that they can stumble and then recover, even on ice or after being kicked hard by a human. When fitted with an arm, BigDog can hurl huge cinderblocks nearly 9 metres.
Then there’s Cheetah, which can run at 45km/h. That’s faster than Usain Bolt.
And Atlas, a bipedal robot, looking alarmingly like the terrifying cyborg terminators of the films. It can drive a car, walk on rough ground and is virtually indestructible - still able to balance on one leg even when a wrecking ball is sent crashing into it.
As for the humanoid Petman (whose primary purpose is supposedly to test chemical protection clothing), it can charge up stairs and do press-ups.
Wildcat gallops along like a headless metal horse, carries heavy loads and can obey verbal commands.
The little four-wheeled Sand Flea weighs just 5kg but can jump 9 metres in the air - high enough to land on the roof of a house.
Boston Dynamics’ main customer is the Pentagon’s shadowy technical research arm, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. The Pentagon says robots could play a crucial role in toxic disaster zones where humans cannot go. What it doesn’t say is that they could also come in pretty handy when it comes to killing people.
What, one might ask, could an internet company possibly want with such a nightmarish menagerie? Sceptics have long painted Google as a sinister James Bond-style corporate villain, working secretly towards eventual world domination. Might the conspiracy theorists be onto something?
The Boston Dynamics deal - the eighth robot firm Google has bought in the past few months - shows the company is deadly serious about a robot-filled future.
Google co-founder Larry Page has long said that it was technology’s job to free humans from drudgery and repetitive tasks. Andy Rubin, Google’s robot chief and the tech wizard who developed the Android software for mobile phones, has said that within the decade robots will have replaced Google’s factory workers and its delivery drivers.
Earlier this year, it hired Ray Kurzweil, an expert on artificial intelligence, as head of engineering. If you didn’t believe that Google only has our best interests at heart, one might feel a little disconcerted by Mr Kurzweil’s delight in comparing the human body to computer software - and finding us woefully inadequate. We are all ‘out of date’ and in need of updating, he has said.
He has outlined a future that includes so-called nanobots that augment our immune systems to help fight diseases, improve health and allow people to live longer.
Google is also developing a driverless car and says it is investing in a drone delivery programme - as is online mega-retailer Amazon.
The latter’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, recently announced that flying delivery drones will deliver some of its packages within five years.
You can see the appeal of beating traffic jams by delivering urgent packages by air - even if the idea does remind you of those Fifties newsreels that predicted a future in which everyone would commute by gyrocopter. But what Google has planned for its army of creeping, crawling and jumping mechanical creatures is harder to gauge.
The company, which has untold spare billions it can sink into any “blue sky” project it likes, remains tight-lipped about its plans. (As soon as it buys each robot maker, the secretive Google closes down the firm’s website.) It has simply said its robotic division is a “moonshot” - a speculative punt.
Still, the company’s bosses have dropped a few hints what they have in mind, and it’s clear that those who initially thought Google simply wanted to replace humans with robots in its factories were wide of the mark. That’s obvious simply from the number and nature of the robot companies it has bought.
One designs robotic torsos that can interact with people at home; another makes what it calls “human-centred hyper-agility robots” (meaning they move in a human fashion); another makes a robotic camera system that was used in the making of the space thriller Gravity.
Google sees robots as transforming society. It presumably envisions a future in which there are as many robots as there are people.
Some scientists are enthusiastic, seeing a revolution that will free humanity from the tedious tasks of modern life - or, with battlefield robots, remove human soldiers from the danger of getting hurt or killed.
Others are concerned about the long-term consequences of allowing machines to replace humans wholesale - especially if they are controlled by a company with such a dismal track record on respecting our right to privacy as Google.
Professor Illah Nourbasksh, of Carnegie Mellon University, one of the world’s foremost robotics academics, acknowledges that conspiracy theorists see a sci-fi future in which, as one put it, Google’s plans mark the ‘long and dangerous road ... to human extinction’.
He says he recently heard the head of a domestic drone company say she fantasises about a future in which a flying drone delivers her a bottle of water at the end of her morning run.
But imagine if every jogger has a drone noisily hovering in the air, jostling for position not just with each other but with other robots, such as so-called ‘adbots’, waiting to attract our attention and beam a specially tailored advert at us.
Such “robot smog”, he writes in The New Yorker, could ‘transform the worst effects of digital devices into real-world annoyances that cannot be silenced or hidden in a pocket’.
And don’t expect robots to understand the gestures and tone of voice we use with each other to communicate effectively - because they won’t, he warns. As for who is master of whom, just remember that you may know little about the robot - but it, beaming back images and information to Google’s databases, will know everything about you.
One part of the population who, experts predict, will be seeing more and more of robots - whether they like it or not - is the elderly. With too few human carers to look after our expanding older population, robots are seen as one answer.
Researchers have already discovered that some types of robots - cuddly ones that look like stuffed toys - make better companions than pets do for older people. People wanted to talk to them even more than they did real dogs.
Tests in the US have showed pensioners were comfortable with being looked after by robots, delegating tasks such as cleaning and the laundry. They were even willing to let them hand them their medicine. Yet they preferred the human touch when it came to more personal tasks such as bathing and dressing them.
Scientists differ over when we can expect this dawn of the robots. But one thing remains certain: it will be sooner than you think. - Daily Mail