Alphabet Layoffs Hit Trash-Sorting 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.