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Google parent company Alphabet announced its newest venture today. Intrinsic is a robotics software company that launched out of the X moonshot division of Alphabet. Details about Intrinsic’s software were scarce at press time, but the company said it is developing software tools designed to make industrial robots “easier to use, less costly and more flexible, so that more people can use them to make new products, businesses and services.”
Demand for industrial robots has surged over the past year as businesses scrambled to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Q1 2021, for example, industrial robot orders increased 19.6% across North America, according to the Association for Advancing Automation. Programming and re-programming robots for new tasks, however, still remains a major obstacle for many companies, and this is what Intrinsic is hoping to tackle.
Intrinsic said it has been exploring how automated perception, deep learning, reinforcement learning, motion planning, force control, and simulation can be combined to make industrial robots more useful and flexible. It said early tests showed it’s possible for an industrial robot to learn how to perform dexterous tasks and to apply what it has learned from one task to another similar task.
In one “real-world test,” Intrinsic worked with ETH Zurich to assemble wooden pods for an architectural project. They have four ceiling-mounted industrial robots at their Robotic Fabrication Lab to help with the assembly, which involves bringing sets of four panels together at the same time to be glued and cured. This complex task raised the challenge of coordinating the motion of all four robots simultaneously.
Intrinsic is led by CEO Wendy Tan-White. She is a veteran entrepreneur and investor who has served as VP of X since 2019,
“The surprisingly manual and bespoke process of teaching robots how to do things, which hasn’t changed much over the last few decades, is currently a cap on their potential to help more businesses,” Tan-White wrote in a blog introducing Intrinsic. “Specialist programmers can spend hundreds of hours hard coding robots to perform specific jobs, like welding two pieces of metal, or gluing together an electronics case. And many dexterous and delicate tasks, like inserting plugs or moving cords, remain unfeasible for robots because they lack the sensors or software needed to understand their physical surroundings.”
Tan-White said her team trained a robot in two hours to complete a USB connection task that would take hundreds of hours to program. The software also allowed two KUKA robots to assemble a simple piece of furniture.
“None of this is realistic or affordable to automate today – and there are millions of other examples like this in businesses around the world. This all hints at the potential for Intrinsic’s software to radically reduce the time, cost, and complexity required to use industrial robots – and therefore their long-term potential to help with a much wider range of problems and drive up the diversity of goods that can be produced affordably and sustainably.”
As a software-focused company, Intrinsic appears to play into one of Google’s many strengths. Google previously had a major focus on robotics, but primarily on the hardware side of things. Back in 2013, Google went on a robotics shopping spree, acquiring seven companies in about six months. Those companies included Boston Dynamics, Bot & Dolly, Industrial Perception, Meka Robotics, Redwood Robotics and Schaft.
Google eventually shut down most of these companies or sold them off. Boston Dynamics, for example, was sold to Softbank in June 2017. Softbank has since flipped that acquisition, selling the maker of the Spot quadruped to Hyundai Motor Group for nearly $1 billion.
Alphabet is also the parent company of Waymo, the world’s leading company developing autonomous vehicles.
Intrinsic isn’t doing press interviews at this time, so we’ll have to wait a bit to learn more specifics about its work. But ease of use has long been a challenge for the robotics industry. And it was the focus of a recent episode of The Robot Report Podcast, which you can listen to below.