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AlphaGo was yesterday, Boston Dynamics is today

Friday, 18 March, 2016

How fickle these times are. How quickly glory fades and how rapidly doubt steps into its shoes. For example: Google was being deluged with praise last week after AlphaGo won the DeepMind Challenge against the champion Lee Sedol. Suddenly, the scary concept of Artificial Intelligence (AI) was, well, less scary and Google got lots of love. How short our attention span is, however.

Yesterday, Bloomberg rattled the rosy future with the headline, “Google Puts Boston Dynamics Up for Sale in Robotics Retreat.” The talk on the street was of the inability of Boston Dynamics to produce marketable robots anytime soon. Hence the reported “For Sale” sign. But there’s another aspect to the story, one which relates to the scary AI scenario. Boston Dynamics posted a humanoid robotics video on YouTube last month that made many people uneasy and the mother company, Alphabet, sensing another Google Glass moment, perhaps, began to count the negative publicity cost. Bloomberg quoted from e-mails published on an internal online forum that were visible to all Google employees:

“There’s excitement from the tech press, but we’re also starting to see some negative threads about it being terrifying, ready to take humans’ jobs,” wrote Courtney Hohne, a director of communications at Google and the spokeswoman for Google X. Hohne asked her colleagues to “distance X from this video,” and wrote, “we don’t want to trigger a whole separate media cycle about where BD really is at Google.”

After the match between AlphaGo and Lee Sedol, the scoreline read: Machines, 4, Humanity, 1. With Google’s retreat from robots, some would says it’s now Machines, 4, Humanity, 2. But that will probably change next week. This is a fast-paced game and the job-eating robots are advancing, despite the headlines.


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