Google’s parent-company Alphabet has a birth to announce: a new company called Intrinsic which will focus on building software for industrial robots. The subsidiary will be one of Alphabet’s “other bets” — relatively speculative firms focusing on new technology like Waymo (self-driving cars), Wing (delivery drones), and Verily (healthcare and biotech).
Details on what exactly Intrinsic is building or who its customers will be are unclear. A blog post from the company’s new CEO, Wendy Tan White, discusses Intrinsic’s ambitions in broad terms, saying it will “unlock the creative and economic potential of industrial robotics for millions more businesses, entrepreneurs, and developers” by creating software that will make industrial robots “easier to use, less costly and more flexible.”
Robotics have been an obsession at Google for years, but the company’s efforts have been unfocused and have yet to produce any commercial hits.
In 2013, Google went on a shopping spree for robots, buying seven companies in roughly six months, including Schaft (a Japanese firm known for bipedal bots), Bot & Dolly (makers of very cool viral videos), and Boston Dynamics (which needs no introduction). The effort was named “Replicant” and headed by Andy Rubin, an executive who co-founded the Android mobile operating system. Over the years, though, no news emerged from Replicant, and Google either sold off or shut down most of its acquisitions. Why? Partly because robots are hard to make and not very profitable. But also because of Rubin’s departure from the company in 2014 after being accused of sexual misconduct (which Google kept secret).
Since Replicant’s failure, the company has focused more on the software side of things, using machine learning to teach robots to manipulate objects without direct supervision. This plays to Google’s strengths and will apparently be Intrinsic’s focus going forward.
“Over the last few years, our team has been exploring how to give industrial 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,” writes Tan White in the blog post. “[W]e’ve been testing software that uses techniques like automated perception, deep learning, reinforcement learning, motion planning, simulation, and force control.”
More than that, we don’t really know. Though it’s worth noting it’s not the only robotics effort at Google right now. In 2019, the company made a splash in announcing its Everyday Robot project: an effort housed in the company’s tech incubator X to develop a “general-purpose learning robot.” What’s happened to this project is unclear, and clicking the link on its homepage to “read more” only directs you to a launch blog post, unchanged since 2019. Perhaps Intrinsic will have better luck in keeping Google’s attention.