For years, we knew Google (GOOG) as a search engine company. But a number of initiatives and a host of Google acquisitions later … it’s so, so much more.
As Google grew from its basic search origins, the company seemed intent on shoring up its stranglehold on ad revenue by driving as much traffic as possible through its search and web sites — its Android strategy and continued pushing of Google apps on Apple’s (AAPL) iOS being prime examples. At the same time, it has embarked on a concerted effort to diversify.
Google expanded into hardware with offerings like the increasingly popular Chromebooks, media sales (Google Play is now the biggest app store) and special projects like Google Glass. And lately, the company has shown a fascination with robotics and artificial intelligence. From driverless cars to the hiring of futurist Ray Kurzwell to head up its engineering labs, the company is investing in a robotic future. Recent Google acquisitions have reflected this focus, including the latest: U.K.-based artificial intelligence startup DeepMind.
Google confirmed that it bought artificial intelligence startup DeepMind over the weekend for $500 million. The question is, what does DeepMind offer? Is its AI technology intended to strengthen Google’s core search business, or is it intended to provide additional smarts for Google robots?
DeepMind itself is short on detail. The company has only been in existence since 2012. Its website is a single page that offers up several clues. “We combine the best techniques from machine learning and systems neuroscience to build powerful general-purpose learning algorithms,” it declares before stating, “Our first commercial applications are in simulations, e-commerce and games.”
So on the surface, that AI technology seems more suited to strengthening Google’s search technology, boosting GooglePlay or providing Google Now with a leg up on Apple’s Siri virtual assistant. However, DeepMind was also hiring “talented machine learning researchers” at the time of the purchase and that field could mean both big data and potentially robotics.
Perhaps DeepMind was purchased as much for what it was looking at longer term than what it has been working on lately.
Or maybe this is one of those Google acquisitions that could be considered a defensive move — to keep it out of Facebook’s (FB) hands. The Information reported back in December that Facebook was also actively pursuing DeepMind.
Whatever Google’s reasons in this specific case, the DeepMind acquisition ultimately should be good for GOOG stock. The company still depends on advertising for something like 95% of its revenue. Any technology that can give it a leg up on competitors like Microsoft’s (MSFT) Bing is good for the bottom line — and having search that keeps getting smarter would definitely be a leg up. The same thing with mobile and targeted ads, where Facebook and Twitter (TWTR) are threatening.
DeepMind’s AI technology could also be used to supplement the know-how Google has already amassed in the robotics field, making Google robots smarter. A new market in which Google robots dominated would be good for GOOG as well.
As the pieces of the big picture fall into place, we’re compiling a list of recent Google acquisitions that support the theory the company is buying the pieces to not only make searches smarter, but to power future generations of Google robots.
Google Acquisitions (2014): Nest Labs
Google bought the home automation success story (and maker of the popular Nest Learning Thermostat), gaining an instant entry into the growing home automation market while bringing on a team of talented engineers — including former Apple VP and iPod visionary Tony Fadell.
Google Acquisitions (2013): Boston Dynamics
There’s no questioning the fact this one was all about Google robots. The bigger question was how Boston Dynamics’ famed (and fearsome-appearing) robotic creations and U.S. Defense Department contracts fit in with Google’s “Don’t be evil” mantra.
Google Acquisitions (2013): Bot&Dolly
If you are a fan of the movie Gravity, you’re familiar with Bot&Dolly’s work. The company developed software to control robotic arms with precision that humans aren’t capable of, along with advanced safety features that make them safe to use in close proximity to humans. Bot&Dolly should contribute to Google robots that are safer and easier to program.
Google Acquisitions (2013): Holomni
Not all futuristic mechanical workers are going to use legs. Holomni’s expertise in “high-tech wheels and omnidirectional motion” has applications ranging from wheeled Google robots to driverless cars.
Google Acquisitions (2013): Meka Robotics
Located in San Francisco, the Meka Robotics team wouldn’t have far to travel to new digs at the Googleplex. Meka’s core competency is in compliant robotics; it made robots designed to work in everyday environments along with the software to drive them.
Google Acquisitions (2013): Redwood Robotics
According to PC Magazine, Redwood Robotics is pretty specialized, focusing on robotic arms for personal service robots. Whether this signals Google robots for telepresence or a physical presence to take on Apple’s Siri remains to be seen.
Google Acquisitions (2013): Industrial Perception
“Providing robots with the skills they’ll need to succeed in the economy of tomorrow.” As the company gets deeper into manufacturing of consumer electronics, it’s not hard to imagine early Google robots being tasked with assembly or warehouse duties — just the sort of functions Industrial Perception specializes in.
Google Acquisitions (2013): Schaft Inc.
Already leading Google robots into the public eye, a 209-pound creation from Japanese startup Schaft Inc. won Google recognition at a DARPA disaster relief competition. With this acquisition, Google gained access to Urata Leg, advanced servo and bipedal control — two-legged robots, in other words.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.