(This post has been updated with new information below)
Just a few days after Amazon announced its plans for delivery drones, Google has taken the wraps off a potentially much broader effort to develop robots for manufacturing, retailing and other uses.
And today we learned, thanks to the New York Times, that the effort is being led by Andy Rubin, who previously oversaw development of the Google mobile operating software that now powers more smartphones and tablets than any other mobile system in the world.
It’s no coincidence that the mobile software is called Android. Rubin has a long-standing interest in robotics and intelligent machines. As the Times’ John Markoff has reported before, Rubin worked as a robot engineer for a German tech firm early in his career, before he joined Apple and then a series of start-ups that led to the founding of Android.com, which Google bought and turned into the core of its own mobile software push.
Rubin stepped down as head of Google’s Android business in March, saying only that he wanted to pursue a new, undisclosed project at the giant Internet company. There was wide speculation about the reasons for his move. But CEO Larry Page only hinted at Rubin’s plans when he said, in a statement announcing the change: “Andy, more moonshots please!” (Page gave Rubin a further “Attaboy” in a brief blog post on Tuesday night.)
Page is giving Rubin a pretty long leash, judging from the Times’ report, which quotes Rubin as talking about a “10-year vision” for his robot development effort. Google has also augmented the effort by acquiring seven small start-ups focused on robotics and artificial intelligence, and Rubin told Markoff that he’s pursuing other acquisitions. But the Times said Rubin and Google wouldn’t give up many details about their plans.
The project is based in Palo Alto, but it’s apparently not part of Google X, the larger and also secretive Google division that’s responsible for other ambitious projects including self-driving cars and the wearable Google Glass device.
Update: Macquarie Securities’ analyst Ben Schachter is enthusiastic about Rubin’s new project. In a note to investors on Wednesday, Schachter suggested a robot business could be a multi-billion-dollar business for Google:
“As far as sizing Andy Rubin’s potential addressable market, it is near impossible to say how big such robotics businesses may become in the future. However, we don’t believe that GOOG invests meaningfully in any business that it doesn’t think can be profitable and generate at least $5bn in revenue in a reasonable time frame.”
(Photo of Andy Rubin by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)