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Android founder Andy Rubin's secret Google project: building real robots

Android founder Andy Rubin's secret Google project: building real robots

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When Android founder Andy Rubin stepped away from the mobile operating system he helped create, rumors suggested he would pursue his lifelong love of real robots instead. Now, The New York Times reports that those rumors were true: Google has purchased seven different robot companies for a secretive new robotics initiative — and placed Rubin at its head.

"I have a history of making my hobbies into a career."

The story apparently comes from Rubin himself, who granted the Times an interview but wouldn't provide many details about Google's plans. Apparently, the robot group is distinct from the Google X lab, which has become synonymous with the company's crazier hardware projects, such as self-driving cars and balloon-powered internet. However, Rubin said that the new division — which could even be spun off as a separate company — is still pursuing a "moonshot" of that sort. Currently, Rubin is hiring roboticists for the project, which the Times reports will maintain offices in both Palo Alto and Japan.

It's not clear what kind of robots the group will build, but several of the companies involved previously built humanoid robots and robotic arms, and it seems like Rubin is suggesting that Google's creation might be able to move, reach, and grab things like a person. According to "several people with specific knowledge of the project," the robots will likely be used in manufacturing rather than sold to consumers, and might specifically be used in electronics assembly — which could fit well with the tech industry's recent push for Made in the USA products. China's Foxconn, which produces many consumer electronics devices including Apple products, began replacing workers with robots last year. US companies attempting to reduce dependance on China might want to follow suit. There's already one company building a robot that attempts to fill that niche: Baxter, a $22,000 "coworking" robot designed to assist humans with basic assembly line tasks without risk of injury.

For Rubin, manufacturing is a return to the past. According to a 2007 profile, Rubin began as a robot engineer at lens manufacturer Carl Zeiss and had a brief stint at Apple as a manufacturing engineer before devoting his working hours to developing computers instead. However, robotics remained a hobby, with Rubin both building his own and amassing a collection of robots from Japan. The Android operating system's name was no accident: Rubin's coworkers at Apple started calling him "Android" because of his love of robots, and he adopted the name for his own purposes years later.

Now, Google has allowed him to build those robots all day long. "I have a history of making my hobbies into a career," Rubin told the Times. "This is the world's greatest job. Being an engineer and a tinkerer, you start thinking about what you would want to build for yourself."