Alphabet has launched an independent robotics software company Intrinsic under X Development. Intrinsic has been in the works for the last five and a half years. Intrinsic develops software tools to build easy-to-use, cheap and flexible industrial robots.
Programmers spend hundreds of hours hard coding to make robots perform a particular task. Even then, many delicate tasks like inserting plugs and moving cords still remain off limits for robots.
Intrinsic strives to give robots the ability to ‘sense, learn, and automatically make adjustments as they’re completing tasks, so they work in a wider range of settings and applications’. Over the years, the team has worked in real-world manufacturing settings to develop software that uses techniques such as automated perception, deep learning, motion planning, simulation, reinforcement learning, and force control.
Credit: Intrinsic (X Development) Blog
The team trained a robot to complete a USB connection task in two hours. In separate instances, multiple robot arms were taught to assemble an architectural installation and a simple piece of furniture. Intrinsic CEO Wendy Tan-White believes the company will drastically reduce the time, cost, and complexity of using industrial robots.
Google’s parent company has an ambitious robotics initiative called the Everyday Robot project (officially launched in 2019) under the X division. Hans Peter Brondmo, the current general manager of the Everyday Robot project, joined X in 2016. Everyday Robot is the first moonshot robotics project to become public.
In the early days of the Everyday Robot project, the team collaborated with Google AI to teach them simple tasks to develop new capabilities. The team investigated how robots can learn from human demonstrations, shared experiences, and how to simulate robots in the cloud. The project uses a variety of machine learning techniques including simulation, reinforcement learning, and collaborative learning. For the last two years, the Everyday Robot project has been lying low.
Google has harboured major ambitions in the field of robotics. It started in 2013 with Andy Rubin, the then head of Android operating system software stepping down to lead the robotics program at Google called the Replicant. Under his leadership, Google made several purchases. However, in 2014 Rubin was embroiled in a sexual harassment case, and had to quit the company, leaving the project in the lurch.
Alphabet launched Robotics at Google in 2019. Led by Vincent Vanhoucke who previously helped build Google Brain, the mission of Robotics at Google is simple: teach robots to do new tasks. The division has earlier collaborated with a startup called Fetch. Google researchers have trained the startup’s mobile robots to navigate.
Robotics: A risky business
OpenAI cofounder Wojciech Zaremba said the company has disbanded its robotics team in a Weights & Biases podcast. “I was actually working for several years on robotics. Recently, we changed the focus at OpenAI. I disbanded the robotics team. There are actually plenty of domains that are very rich with data. Ultimately that was holding us back, in the case of robotics,” said Zaremba.
Industrial robotics companies like Rethink Robotics had to shut shop. Honda retired its Asimo robotics project after a decade in development. Another popular manufacturer of humanoid robots Boston Dynamics was in the red for a long time until Hyundai picked up a controlling stake for $1.1 billion.