When A.I. Met R.O.I.
Over the years a few of us have written issues concerning battlefield robots. (See, for example: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.) Sometimes, we had links to remarkable videos of quadruped robots stomping through forests. Those robots and videos were made by Boston Dynamics, a company that started from an MIT research group.
Besides its designing quadruped robots, Boston Dynamics gained further renown when, in 2013, it was acquired by Google as part of that company’s broad push into robotics. Just last month, one of Boston Dynamics’ new videos wen viral; it highlighted its two-legged Atlas robot walking indoors, on snowy hillsides, lifting and stacking boxes, and being pushed by a human (and righting itself). Yesterday, Google announced that it was selling Boston Dynamics. Why? And what does this say about all the prognostications about the rise of the robots, either on the battlefield or in the workplace?
At its most basic level, the story here seems to be as much about the difficulties of post-acquisition integration of business cultures and goals as it is about robotics. An article in Bloomberg Business notes:
Executives at Google parent Alphabet Inc., absorbed with making sure all the various companies under its corporate umbrella have plans to generate real revenue, concluded that Boston Dynamics isn’t likely to produce a marketable product in the next few years and have put the unit up for sale, according to two people familiar with the company’s plans.
After Boston Dynamics’ 2013 acquisition, it was made part of Google’s broader robotics initiative, called Replicant. (Query whether naming the division after the murderous androids of Philip K.Dick’s dystopian classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which became the movie Blade Runner, was a good idea.) Bloomberg Business explains:
At the heart of Replicant’s trouble, said a person familiar with the group, was a reluctance by Boston Dynamics executives to work with Google’s other robot engineers in California and Tokyo and the unit’s failure to come up with products that could be released in the near term.
While the issue inside of Google was less about the technology of artificial intelligence (AI) than about the return on the investment (ROI) of the robotics company acquisitions, according to Bloomberg Business the Atlas video did cause concern among some of the public relations folks at Google over whether humanoid robots would be perceived as taking jobs from real human. Plus, as one PR person put it, some people found the robot “terrifying.” (Yeah, that “Replicant” name-choice seems increasingly like a bad idea. At least they didn’t call the business unit the “Terminator Division.”)
Many have spent time writing and talking about the legal issues related to the use of remotely controlled or autonomous battlefield robots. The immediate issues stemmed from the use aerial drones, of course, but on the horizon has been the possibility of robots being deployed in ground combat (as opposed to in bomb demolition, or other areas where remotely controlled units are already deployed). I am all for lawyers anticipating issues caused by technological change. But before we get there, there are a host of legal issues concerning the transactions that will support the R&D that will develop this technology. With the potential sale of Boston Dynamics to Toyota, it bears noting that the immediate legal issues may have to do more with international business transactions than international humanitarian law.