Google has been quietly rebuilding its robotics programme, moving away from its ambitious sci-fi humanoid robots towards offerings aiming to take on Amazon and Ocado.
In 2013 the tech giant went on a robotics buying spree, acquiring six companies across the US and Japan specialising in creating machines that moved like humans or animals, including the now revered Boston Dynamics.
The original project, dubbed Replicant in reference to Blade Runner, was slowly wound down and its companies sold off as its vice president of engineering Andy Rubin was embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal.
According to a report by the New York Times Google has reinstated its robotics programme, moving away from the flashy animatronics of Rubin’s Replicant project toward a simpler and more readily applicable focus.
Its new project, Robotics at Google, has produced robots which utilise AI to learn skills on their own, such as navigating a busy warehouse and sorting through unfamiliar objects.
One such machine is a robotic arm which demonstrated its ability to hover above a bin filled with numerous objects including ping-pong balls, wooden blocks and plastic bananas, select individual items and sort them into separate smaller bins by literally throwing them in.
Similar but more basic versions of this technology are already being utilised by leading retailers like Ocado and Amazon, and Google’s researchers believe it could soon be rolled out to automate distribution centres with greater reliability than humans.