The Google Robot, Your Future Logistics Worker

Last Friday, news came out that Google bought Boston Dynamics, a robotics company based in Waltham, MA. Boston Dynamics’ tagline is “Changing Your Idea of What Robots Can Do,” and when I watched the videos below demonstrating some of their robots, I realized that the line between what humans and robots can do is becoming thinner every day.

Boston Dynamics is the eighth robotics company Google has acquired in the past six months. Why is Google so interested in robots? The company isn’t saying much about its plans, except that Andy Rubin, the executive who led the development of Android, is also leading this effort.

What happens when you combine the robot technology Google has acquired with its other innovations, such as self-driving cars and Google Glass? We’re sure to find out in a few years, but I’m betting that “The Google Robot” — whatever form (or forms) it takes — will have logistics applications, whether in the warehouse or in transporting goods.

Earlier this year, 60 Minutes aired a segment titled March of the Machines, highlighting how robots and automation technology are impacting jobs and the economy. The segment featured Quiet Logistics, a 3PL that uses robots made by Kiva Systems, which was acquired by Amazon last year.

Bruce Welty, the CEO of Quiet Logistics, participated in a session I moderated at the CSCMP Annual Global Conference in October. Bruce spoke about the use of robots in the warehouse, and one of the things he said is that robots are currently not capable of doing everything in the warehouse, such as packing, which is why Quiet Logistics still employs people. He also said that when people think of robots, they tend to think of human-like machines (humanoids), but as evidenced by Kiva’s robots, that is not the case.

However, after seeing Boston Dynamics’ PETMAN robot, I believe Google will continue to push the limits of what robots are capable of doing, and robots will eventually take over more tasks in the warehouse, and they’ll look more human too. Don’t think it’s possible? Then you’re in Stage 1 of The Seven Stages of Robot Replacement.

I also believe Google has the potential to transform transportation with this technology. Maybe someday in the future, while Amazon’s drones are flying overhead, a Google Robot that looks something like Boston Dynamics’ WildCat robot will gallop along our streets and sidewalks to deliver packages. Or maybe it’s a hybrid robot, a self-driving car that transforms into a humanoid robot when it arrives at its destination, and then walks up to your doorstep with your package. The possibilities are endless.

Sure, there are a million reasons why none of this will work in the future. But what if? That’s the question that drives innovators like Google, Amazon, and Apple. And if you don’t ask the question and try, you’ll never find out.

The robots will keep coming. That was my prediction last year, and I believe the trend will accelerate in 2014. I’ll end with these words of advice from Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, authors of Race Against the Machine: “Our technologies are racing ahead but many of our skills and organizations are lagging behind. So it’s urgent that we understand these phenomena, discuss their implications, and come up with strategies that allow human workers to race ahead with machines instead of racing against them.”

(For related commentary, see Would Robot Drivers Check Facebook While Driving and Robots and the Future of Retail and Logistics Jobs.)