Alphabet's latest moonshot aims to make industrial robots more practical

Even a small business could put robots to use.


Alphabet has launched another company in its X moonshot factory, and this one may be its most ambitious robotics project to date. The just-opened firm, Intrinsic, plans to make industrial robots more accessible to people and businesses that couldn't otherwise justify the effort involved to teach the machines. You could see robotic manufacturing in more countries, for example, or small businesses that can automate production that previously required manual labor.

Intrinsic will focus on software tools that make these robots easier to use, more flexible and more affordable. To that end, the company has been testing a mix of software tools that include AI techniques like automated perception, motion planning and reinforcement learning. Company chief Wendy Tan-White has relevant experience, too. She started the "world's first" software-as-a-service site builder to make web development more accessible, launched early online banking and lending services, and helped nurture startups as a VP at X.

The technology is still early, but there are already promising results. During its development time at X, the team trained a robot to make a USB connection in two hours (instead of programming it over hundreds of hours) and had robotic arms build simple furniture (shown below). Automation wouldn't be "realistic or affordable" for efforts like these using existing technology, Intrinsic said.

Intrinsic industrial robots use perception, force control and planning to assemble furniture

The new company still has much work to do. It's now focused more on creating a practical product and "validating" its tech. It's also hunting for partners in car manufacturing, electronics and healthcare that currently use industrial robots. If Intrinsic succeeds, though, it could make robotics more equitable and fill gaps in production. The company even suggests that its work could help the environment — the closer robotic factories are to people, the lower the emissions needed to transport goods to customers.

This might prove challenging. Rethink Robotics spent years developing collaborative robots that learn through simple human guidance, only to shut down as sales fell short. X moonshot companies also aren't guaranteed to succeed — look at Loon's fate as an example. Alphabet's money could help where companies like Rethink struggled, however, and Intrinsic is focused more on solving overall robotics problems rather than specific scenarios. This effort might stand a better chance than most.