Layoffs at alphabets hit rubbish sorting robots

Teach a robot to open a door, and it should open a life of opportunity. Not so for one of Alphabet’s youngest subsidiaries, Everyday Robots. Just over a year later graduate from Alphabet’s X moonshot labthe team that trained more than a hundred one-armed robots on wheels to wipe down cafeteria tables, separate trash and recycling, and yes, open doors is being closed as part of budget cuts spreading across Google’s parent company, a spokeswoman confirmed.

“Everyday Robots will no longer be a separate project within Alphabet,” said Denise Gamboa, director of marketing and communications for Everyday Robots. “Part of the technology and part of the team will be consolidated into existing robotics efforts within Google Research.”

The robotics venture is the latest failed bet for X, who also spewed out internet-beaming balloons (Loon) and power-generating kites (Makani) over the past decade before considering them too commercially viable to keep afloat. Other one-time X projects, such as Waymo (developing autonomous vehicles) and Wing (testing grocery delivery drones) continue as companies within Alphabet, though their financial prospects remain mired in regulatory and technological challenges. Like Everyday Robots, those companies used new technologies that showed impressive promise in trials, but lacked rock-solid reliability.

Everyday Robots emerged from the rubble of at least eight robotics acquisitions by Google ten years ago. Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin expected machine learning to revolutionize robotics, and Page specifically wanted to develop a consumer-facing robot, says a former involved employee, speaking anonymously to discuss internal deliberations. In 2016, they put software entrepreneur Hans Peter Brøndmo in charge of a project then known as Help (and later, for a time, Moxie) to use machine learning to develop robots that can handle routine tasks and adapt to different environments, says the source. .

The team set up farms and playpens, where a fleet of robots would spend months repeating the same task, such as sorting waste. It was a brutal attempt to generate data to train a machine learning model that could then embody the robots with the know-how necessary to use their cameras, arms, wheels and finger-like grips to interact with the world around them. The novelty was that engineers were spared the traditional approach in robotics of having to code specific instructions for the machines to follow for every little potential scenario. The idea worked for the most part for the first tasks. Google enlisted the fleet of Everyday Robots to help clean the search giant’s dining rooms and check for untidy meeting rooms during the pandemic.

Thanks to Google

Last year, Everyday Robots showed further progress with Google AI researchers. The project integrated a large language model similar to that of ChatGPT into the robot system, allowing the mechanical helper to respond to someone who says he is hungry, for example, by getting him a bag of chips. But Google and Everyday Robots emphasized at the time that an itinerant butler at your beck and call remained far from available to consumers. Variations that seem trivial to humans, such as the type of lighting in a room or the shape of the chip bag, can cause malfunctions.

From the start, Everyday Robots struggled with whether its mission was to conduct advanced research or bring a product to market, the former employee says. More than 200 employees worked there, including people who supervised customers’ activities, taught robots to dance and tinkered with the perfect design. Each of his robots is likely to cost tens of thousands of dollars, robotics experts estimate.

That spending was too much for Alphabet, whose more speculative “other bets” like Everyday Robots and Waymo lost about $6.1 billion last year. Alphabet’s overall profits fell 21 percent to $60 billion last year as Google ad spending slowed and activist investors urged the company to cut spending. On January 20, Alphabet announced it would lay off about 12,000 employees, 6 percent of its workforce. Everyday Robots was one of the few projects to be disbanded.

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