Following an aggressive strategy to acquire numerous robotics companies, Google is continuing its push into the robotics field by seeking valuable patent rights. While traditionally known for its Internet search algorithm, Google has sought to create product lines of hardware, with varying degrees of success. The Android has captured a substantial portion of the smartphone market. Google’s driverless car, while apparently high-functioning in tests, may still be illegal in the vast majority of states (though a growing number of states have signed laws specifically authorizing such autonomous vehicles). Google Glass – effectively a functioning computer wearable as glasses – has been perhaps Google’s biggest bust thus far. The push into robotics can be seen as part of Google’s foray into hardware products.
Google’s interest in robots became evident in 2013, when it acquired eight different robotics companies. One major acquisition included the company Boston Dynamics, which built a handful of well-known robots for the U.S. Department of Defense. Purchasing these companies gave Google not only robotics experts as new employees along with the facilities and tools necessary to build robots, but also the intellectual property – including the patents and trade secrets – behind the existing innovations. In effect, the acquisitions “caught” Google up to the current stage of development of the field. Building on the expertise gained through the acquisitions, Google is innovating organically in the field, recently being awarded two patents in rapid succession.
On March 31, 2015, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted Google a patent for “methods and systems for robot personality development.” The patent explains how to customize the actions of a robot based on data about the individual user as well as real-world context such as language and facial patterns. The data necessary to shape and modify a robot’s actions for an individual person is already stored in our devices such as phones, computers, and tablets as search histories, purchase history, and so on. Personalities can also be swapped out via a cloud system.
A mere two weeks later, Google received a patent for “systems and methods for allocating tasks to a plurality of robotic devices.” In effect, this patent covers the ability to control multiple robots at the same time. This patent again relies on the cloud, where the instructions and tasks for the robots can be stored before being sent out. The robots can also send updates to the cloud, so that someone can remotely monitor the status of the robots and the task.
These patents, along with any others Google may have moving through the pipeline at the Patent Office, may prove to be fundamental and valuable as the field of robotics continues to develop. The ability to customize robots based on the interaction or control multiple robots all working towards the same task may be vital for other areas of research and development.
Google’s aggressive move into robotics has not been without criticism. Much of Google’s robot work is done in secret – in contrast to much of the rest of the robotics community – and Google’s acquisitions moved companies that were previously openly competing in robotics competitions behind closed doors. Google’s robot personality patent has been criticized as being more of an idea for a method than an actual invention, and also as oversimplifying what personality actually is. The patent covering control of multiple robots has already given rise to concerns of robot armies.
Regardless of where one falls on the criticisms, what is clear is that Google intends to push into robotics for the foreseeable future.