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Amazon’s drones better keep an eye out for Google’s robots

Google apparently has acquired a company with robots that can unload trucks. What happens when it's more efficient than humans? (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Amazon, with its octocopter drones, isn’t the only company investigating ways to speed up deliveries. Google’s been working on the same problem, only with autonomous cars, and soon, humanoid robots.

John Markoff covers Google for The New York Times.

“I’ll tell you I’ve been inside a Google office, research lab, where I saw two of these Hugo, humanoid robots. So they’re experimenting with them right now. These are really impressive sort of robots with two legs and two arms and sensors for eyes. They look like a human being to me,” says Markoff. “It’s clearly on their agenda to do research with those things, whether that is the ultimate product – in talking to a Google executive, one of the things he said was why should you only have two arms? Why not four? Why not eight?”

Google’s robot guru is Andy Rubin – who Markoff says is ready to spend what it takes to make a practical robot.

“Andy is the person who built the Android phone business for Google, and Google has opened their checkbook to let Andy do what he wants to do,” says Markoff.

He’s described by Markoff as somebody who has a history of turning his hobbies into money-making enterprises.

“He’s always been an experimenter. I would go visit him while he was starting the Android business and he purchased himself, out of his own pocket, an $80,000 robot arm, and he was trying to program the robot arm to make espresso,” says Markoff.

That’s something that Starbucks’ Howard Schultz would be very interested in, too.

“I’m watching this very carefully because the labor impact along the entire spectrum of the workforce is very interesting. This generation of robotics is really going to transform the workforce,” says Markoff.

If Google succeeds in these driver-less cars and these humanoid robots, then what is left for the rest of us to do?

“That is a great question,” says Markoff. “One of the companies that Andy bought, that Google bought, is called Industrial Perception and what they have done is build a robot that loads and unloads trucks, and it’s a very simple equation. The person who works for Walmart or Federal Express moves a box about every six seconds. IPI got their contract when they could move boxes every four seconds, which they can do now, and they think they can go to every two seconds.

“So I believe that the task of loading and unloading trucks over the next half decade is going away, and I’m mixed about that,” says Markoff. “That’s a livelihood for people, but you have to admit it’s a tough job, and if there’s something more creative and interesting for people to do, I think most people would rather do that.”

Why would Google need to unload trucks? Because Markoff says it plans to compete with Amazon.

“I think Google has ambitions that are every bit as big as Amazon’s,” says Markoff. “They’re already experimenting with competing with Amazon. Amazon is restructuring retail in America. I think Google wants to do that too.

“Here in San Francisco, there is a service called Google shopping that they’re experimenting with, where I can use my iPhone and I can order something from REI or Whole Foods or any of about a dozen other companies, and some Google employee in a Google car – not a robot car – but they’ll go buy it for me and they’ll show up at my door a couple hours later with that product. To me, that sounds like they’re competing pretty directly with Amazon.”

(It’s) competing with Amazon without having to build Amazon’s infrastructure. They just provide the service and use other people’s brick-and-mortar stores. Clever.

Amazon is apparently not making money on the products it sells, so Google will sell other companies’ products and make its money on the shipping.

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