Alphabet launches its prototype robots to clean up Google’s offices

What does Google’s parent company Alphabet want with robots? Well, it would like them to clean up the office, for a start.

The company announced today that its Everyday Robots Project – a team within its experimental X labs dedicated to creating “a general learning robot” – has moved some of its prototype machines out of the lab and onto Google’s Bay Area campuses to perform some easy custody tasks.

“We now operate a fleet of more than 100 robot prototypes, which independently perform a number of useful tasks around our offices,” said Everyday Robots robot manager Hans Peter Brøndmo in a blog post. “The same robot that sorts waste can now be equipped with a rubber scraper to wipe tables off and using the same grabber who grabs cups can learn to open doors.”

These robots are essentially arms on wheels, with a multifunction gripper on the end of a flexible arm attached to a central tower. There’s a “head” at the top of the tower with cameras and sensors for machine vision and what looks like a rotating lidar unit on the side, probably for navigation.

One of Alphabet’s Everyday Robot machines cleans the crumbs from a cafe table.
Image: Alphabet

As Brøndmo indicates, these bots were first seen sorting from recycling when Alphabet debuted with the Everyday Robot team in 2019. The big promise given by the company (as well as by many other startups and rivals) is that machine learning will finally activate robots to operate in “unstructured” environments such as homes and offices.

Right now, we are very good at building machines that can perform repetitive tasks at a factory, but we are confused when we try to get them to copy simple tasks like cleaning up a kitchen or folding laundry.

Think about it: You may have seen robots from Boston Dynamics perform backflips and dances to The Rolling Stones, but have you ever seen a take out of the trash? This is because it is extremely difficult to get a machine to manipulate never before seen objects in new surroundings (something people do every day). This is the problem Alphabet wants to solve.

Unit 033 offers a bid for freedom.
Image: Alphabet

Will it? Well, maybe one day – if business leaders feel it’s worth burning through millions of dollars in research to achieve this goal. But certainly humans will be cheaper and more efficient than robots for these jobs in the foreseeable future. Today’s update from Everyday Robot is nice, but it’s far from a leap forward. You can see from the GIFs that Alphabet shared of its robots that they are still slow and awkward, performing tasks ignorantly and at a glacial pace.

However, it is still certain something that the robots are tested “in nature” rather than in the laboratory. Compare, for example, Alphabet’s machines with Samsung’s Bot Handy; a similar tower-and-arm bot that the company showed off at CES last year, where he apparently poured wine and loaded a dishwasher. At least Bot Handy appearance as if it was performing these jobs, but in reality it was only performing a pre-arranged demo. Who knows how skilled, if at all, this robot is in the real world? The alphabet at least finds out for itself.

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