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Report: Google’s Robotics Plans Not as Sci-Fi as Many Were Hoping

Brian Heater
Tech Columnist
Yahoo Tech

Google has been on a robotics company shopping spree as of late, fueling a fair amount of speculation — and more than a few flights of fancy — over the past few months about what the company might be up to.

But, according to a new report from The Wall Street Journalthe simplest and least fanciful explanation might be the right one: Per the WSJ, Google is using the acquisitions to ramp up its manufacturing capabilities.

Late last year, it was revealed that Google had quietly acquired seven robotics companies under the leadership of former Android CEO Andy Rubin. While robots served as a common theme among the acquired firms, the focus of each company was fairly broad, from robotic arms to humanlike robots to robotic television advertising.

Earlier this year, Google’s robot spending spree became more eclectic. Google snatched up an artificial intelligence startup and MIT spinoff called Boston Dynamics, whose enormous, military-funded transport robots have fueled many an apocalyptic nightmare. That purchase fueled speculation that Google was working on something more ambitious than just efficient manufacturing.

Since last year, however, the company has reportedly been working with Foxconn behind the scenes, using the Taiwanese manufacturer’s factories as a testing ground for the technologies that its growing robotics team has been building. Here in the States, Foxconn is largely known for its ties to Apple — a relationship that’s come under scrutiny for questionable labor practices — though it works with many other American technology companies as well.

Reports of overworked and underpaid employees in Foxconn’s Chinese factories — along with allegations of child labor — have led to a number of public reforms for the manufacturer. The company has also publicly mulled over plans to build robotic factories to help circumvent such reports altogether.

A partnership could prove beneficial for Google as well, providing a real-world test bed for the company’s robotic creations. The move could also allow the company to ramp up manufacturing, reducing dependence on other companies should Google create more hardware. Most notably, Google makes the Chromecast, a web streaming device for televisions, and Glass, an as-yet-unreleased headset computer. 

Whether Google’s relationship with Foxconn continues beyond the trial stage will be determined in the coming years. Recently, Google has made an effort to expand manufacturing in the United States, first through its failed Nexus Q set-top media box and more recently by way of a plant in Texas that made Google-owned Motorola smartphones. Google’s recently announced plans to sell off Motorola may lessen its manufacturing load, however.

It’s worth noting that, while Foxconn’s most prominent facilities are based in China, the company has plants all over the world, including a $30 million Pennsylvania location set to open next year. Those plans, first announced in 2013, included a partnership with nearby Carnegie Mellon that would see the facility manufacturing, of all things, robotics.

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