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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Alphabet’s Layoffs Include Its Cafeteria-Cleaning Robots

Teach a robot to open a door, and it ought to unlock a lifetime of opportunities. Not so for one of Alphabet’s youngest subsidiaries, Everyday Robots. Just over a year after graduating from Alphabet’s X moonshot lab, the team that trained over a hundred wheeled, one-armed robots to squeegee cafeteria tables, separate trash and recycling, and yes, open doors, is shutting down as part of budget cuts spreading across the Google parent, a spokeswoman confirmed.

“Everyday Robots will no longer be a separate project within Alphabet,” says Denise Gamboa, director of marketing and communications for Everyday Robots. “Some 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, which in the past decade also spun out internet-beaming balloons (Loon) and power-generating kites (Makani) before deeming them too commercially inviable to keep afloat. Other onetime X projects, such as Waymo (developing autonomous vehicles) and Wing (testing grocery delivery drones) motor on as companies within Alphabet, though their financial prospects remain mired in regulatory and technological challenges. Like Everyday Robots, those ventures harnessed novel technologies that showed impressive promise in trials but not rock-solid reliability.

Everyday Robots emerged from the rubble of at least eight robotics acquisitions by Google a decade ago. Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin expected machine learning would reshape robotics, and Page in particular wanted to develop a consumer-oriented robot, a former employee involved at the time says, speaking anonymously to discuss internal deliberations. By 2016, they put software entrepreneur Hans Peter Brøndmo in charge of a project then known as Help (and later, for a time, Moxie) to leverage machine learning to develop robots that could handle routine tasks and adapt to varying environments, the source says.

The team set up arm farms and playpens, where a fleet of robots for months would repeat the same task—like sorting rubbish. It was a brute-force attempt to generate data to train a machine learning model that could then embody the robots with the know-how needed to use their cameras, arms, wheels, and fingerlike grips to interact with the world around them. The novelty was sparing engineers from the traditional approach in robotics of having to code specific instructions for the machines to follow for every little potential scenario. The idea largely worked for initial tasks. Google had Everyday Robots’ fleet help clean the search giant’s dining halls and check for untidy conference rooms mid-pandemic

Last year, Everyday Robots demonstrated further progress with Google AI researchers. The project integrated a large language model similar to that underlying ChatGPT into the robotics system, enabling the mechanical helper, for example, to respond to someone saying that they are hungry by fetching a bag of chips for them. But Google and Everyday Robots stressed at the time that a roving butler at one’s beck and call remained far from consumer availability. Variations that seem trivial to humans, like the type of lighting in a room or the shape of the chips bag, could cause malfunctions.

From its earliest days, Everyday Robots struggled with whether its mission was to pursue advanced research or deliver a product to market, the former employee says. It staffed up to over 200 employees, including people overseeing customer operations, teaching robots to dance, and tinkering away at the perfect design. Each of its robots likely cost tens of thousands of dollars, robotics experts estimate.

Those expenses were too much for Alphabet, whose more speculative “other bets” such as Everyday Robots and Waymo lost about $6.1 billion last year. Alphabet’s overall profit fell 21 percent last year to $60 billion as spending on Google ads slowed, and activist investors have been clamoring for the company to make cuts. On January 20, Alphabet announced it would lay off about 12,000 workers, 6 percent of its workforce. Everyday Robots was one of the few projects disbanded.

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“It’s unfortunate to see it shut down,” says the former employee. “We are starting to see that robots can do meaningful work in a general way. I don't think it’s a sign of a lack of progress. With the right focus, in five years you could have a meaningful product in the market.”

Alphabet declined to share which Everyday Robots assets and team members will transition to other research teams. In the past, the company has secured outside funding from venture capitalists and other investors for some of its subsidiaries to lessen its own financial burden. It could not be learned whether Alphabet tried that route with Everyday Robots before the shutdown decision. But teams used to spending heavily on tech development, even while significant sales remain a distant prospect, face a tough fundraising environment today.

“Investors are less interested in funding research projects than they were four or five years ago and are more eager to build real businesses around robotics,” says Shahin Farshchi, general partner at venture firm Lux Capital. Pressure on tech stocks has made acquisitions of startups feel less likely, and cost-cutting across industries has made customers more discerning. Many venture capitalists, in turn, are less eager to take on the riskiest ideas, he says.

Kelly Chen, partner at venture firm DCVC, says the robotics companies succeeding at attracting new investment are those “solving real customer pain points,” selling machines that help out with work that is tedious or dangerous for humans to perform and where facilities are highly organized and spacious enough for robots to navigate. Inside an ecommerce warehouse, for example, special markers can be installed to help robots to move about, and workplace rules can ensure human staff keep away. Reliability and workplace safety are key customer concerns, Chen says. Everyday Robots had been testing in offices, where humans and visitors usually flow more freely.

Alphabet has another subsidiary, Intrinsic, that is working on industrial robots, and layoffs there were limited to about 20 percent of its staff.

“In a home, you can't just put magnetic strips everywhere. You can't label everything with QR codes or barcodes. Same with offices,” says Matthew Gombolay, assistant professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Big companies also now have immediate threats to tackle, Gombolay says, noting that Google and its rivals are trying to focus on integrating generative AI like ChatGPT into their services. At the same time, companies with deep pockets like Google are crucial to funding the research needed to make potential robotics breakthroughs. “It's a mistake” to pare back, he says, “but they're trying to prioritize where they want their business to go.” Over at Everyday, the last task for the robots may be to hang up the out-of-business sign.

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