Google Might Withdraw From DARPA Robotics Challenge (Phew!)

Google's purchase of bonkers robotics company Boston Dynamics in December prompted lots of hand-wringing: owning a Department of Defense supplier doesn't jive with many people's concept of "don't be evil." At the time, Google said it wasn't interested in becoming a military contractor, and today's rumor seems to confirm that: according to PopSci, Google is withdrawing its team from the DARPA Robotics Challenge.

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PopSci quotes an unnamed source involved in the DARPA Robotics Challenge with the news, which Google so far hasn't confirmed. This takes SCHAFT, the Google-owned team that won the Robotics Challenge in December, and Boston Dynamics, the Pentagon-funded maker of the ATLAS robot used by many Robotics Challenge teams, are both out of the military-backed competition.

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While the rumor isn't confirmed, it definitely corresponds with Google's earlier assertion that it's not interested in military contract work. And it takes most of the wind out of December's breathless prognosticating over Google's desire to get in to the military supplier business. Gizmodo has contacted Google for comment.

And just why wouldn't Google want a piece of that pie? Well, Brian Gerkey of the Open Source Robotics Foundations tells PopSci that compared to Google's current revenue streams, the military robotics business just isn't big enough to interest the company. "Even the companies these days that are selling robots to the Defense Department are looking for other markets to sell robots to. You only ever need so many military robots in the world, and the size of that market pales in comparison to the consumer market," Gerkey told PopSci.

So, everyone take a deep breath. Google isn't assembling a robot army to take over the world. At least, not a robotic United States Army.

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Update: We've corrected this piece to indicate that Google is allegedly withdrawing its SCHAFT team from the Robotics Challenge. Boston Dynamics, which supplies Robotics Challenge teams with its Atlas robot but does not itself compete, was not indicated in the original report.

Update 2: Google responded to our request for comment, saying "Google doesn't comment on rumor and speculation."

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[PopSci]

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DISCUSSION

So what exactly do they plan on doing with all these companies? It's not that I think the Military is the only application for robots, but currently it seems to be the only viable one. Who else will be willing or financially able to foot the bill for this technology?

If multimillion and multibillion dollar government contracts are somehow too small for Google then what the hell else is there? Robotics might be a relatively small market today, but that will likely change. And it's still the biggest market there is. Search and rescue is a blip in comparison. There's construction, but that's closely tied to the health of the global economy and most construction companies aren't looking to acquire unproven and expensive technologies.

I suppose they could just do research indefinitely. But empirical evidence would suggest that more progress is made when it's focused to address specific needs. It makes me wonder if Google's management bought up these companies specifically to keep the technology out of the hands of the government.