Alphabet tackles industrial robot software market

A male engineer reprogramming a robotic arm in a factory using a laptop
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Google parent company Alphabet has launched a new company called Intrinsic that aims to make industrial robots easier to program.

Originally a project within Google's X research group, Intrinsic has graduated as an independent company within Alphabet. That means it will leave X's rapid prototyping environment and seek development partners.

CEO Wendy Tan-White explained that conventional industrial robots are difficult to program, often taking hundreds of hours of manual programming to perfect repetitive tasks. Some tasks, such as sanding surfaces of different shapes and sizes or plugging in electrical cords, are beyond robots' reach because they require a subtle awareness of environments and surfaces.

Intrinsic wants robots to perform tasks like these. It has also been working on programming multiple robots to work together on complex tasks.

Intrinsic uses various techniques, including artificial intelligence (AI), to make these programming tasks easier by 'teaching' robots how to perform them. The company has also experimented with deep learning, which uses more layers in a neural network to refine machine learning outcomes, and reinforcement learning, which uses feedback on robot performance to improve its attempts at a task over time.

Other algorithms in its toolbox include automated perception and motion planning, and simulation and force control so robots can adjust how much pressure they apply.

The company wants robots to apply their training to similar tasks without engineers reprogramming them again from scratch. It also hopes that by becoming aware of their surroundings, they will adapt to changing environments rather than restricting themselves to specific fixed conditions.

The idea is to make robots more affordable and usable, opening the technology to more businesses. This will also allow companies to make products closer to where they're used, making supply chains more efficient, Tan-White said.

The Intrinsic team spent five years developing the technology inside the X building.

Google has dabbled in robotics before, acquiring Boston Dynamics in 2013 before folding it into its Replicant robotics division after reorganizing into Alphabet in 2015. Internal rifts and concerns over brand optics compelled it to sell the company to Softbank in 2017.


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Google acquired other robotics companies in 2013, including Redwood Robotics, which focused on making robotic arms that are simple to program, and robotic camera systems maker Bot & Dolly.

Intrinsic is the latest initiative to graduate from X, following in the footsteps of autonomous driving startup Waymo and drone delivery company Wing.

Other projects still in development within Google X include the Everyday Robot program, a separate robotics program researching whether robots can operate in changeable environments. Its team developed a robot that could sort recycling waste, which is a challenging task given the unpredictable contents of recycling bins.

Danny Bradbury

Danny Bradbury has been a print journalist specialising in technology since 1989 and a freelance writer since 1994. He has written for national publications on both sides of the Atlantic and has won awards for his investigative cybersecurity journalism work and his arts and culture writing. 

Danny writes about many different technology issues for audiences ranging from consumers through to software developers and CIOs. He also ghostwrites articles for many C-suite business executives in the technology sector and has worked as a presenter for multiple webinars and podcasts.