Robots are going to run Android

Published on January 10, 2014

When Google launched Android, it seemed like an ironic name for an otherwise exciting offering. The wave of smartphones felt like future in action, and they chose to name it after exactly the thing we'd always been promised but never gotten - robots with arms and legs like ours that could walk and talk and help and who knows what else. They might as well have called it Jetpack.

But after a few of the events of 2013, it's starting to look like maybe the name Android isn't a tease so much as a long game. I'm talking about two developments in particular. First of all, Google went ahead and purchased eight robotics companies in the end of 2013. They captured many of the best minds in the field, and selected Andy Rubin, the director of Android since before its acquisition by Google, to run the new robotics division. They've clearly invested heavily in becoming a leader in robotics, and have not explained why. In the short term, it's likely they want them to work in Google's data centers, swapping servers from their racks as they fail.

Now consider another Google moonshot - Project Ara. Ara aims to replace the current centralized processor architecture used in smartphones with a packet switching model like that used by the Internet. The phone comes with an endoskeleton, with gaps of standardized sizes for modules. The processor, the camera, the battery, the display, the storage, and whatever else you want your phone to have can all be swapped in and out. To upgrade your camera, just tell the system to release the electromagnet holding its module and swap in a better one. The whole thing runs Android, so developers still have the convenience of the JVM to keep the software experience consistent across different hardware. Comapanies can bring to market any component they think people want, such as a blood glucose monitor for diabetics.

For the next few years, it's going to be hard enough to get Ara working in cellphones and robots working in datacenters. But Google dreams big. Imagine if they start offering a bigger Ara chassis. And modules where you can slot in not just a camera and a screen but an IR sensor array, legs, and arms with tactile hands. Little robots running Anroid, running around the house, that you can program as easily as you program an Android app. Any company can make a limb or a tool, and you can get their app from the Play store to make the robot dance, or clean, or cook. The model of modularity could let anyone build, develop, and combine for robots the same way that they have with software, freeing robotics from the end-to-end engineering that keeps it in Toyota's labs. For a while it won't be more than a hobbyist plaything, but thats how personal computers and radio started out too.

I don't mean to say that this is the primary goal, or even the most likely outcome, of Google's work in robotics and in Project Ara. However, if we see personal scale robotics within the next thirty years, this seems like by far the most promising lead. I only wish I could know if it's what Andy Rubin's been planning all along.