Alphabet's Dream of an 'Everyday Robot' Is Just Out of Reach

During a recent visit to Alphabet’s X lab, I drained my coffee and left the compostable cup on a tray marked “Cans & Bottles.” The transgression was soon mended. Twenty minutes later, a wheeled, one-armed, chest-high robot whirred along and inspected the cup with the 3D cameras inside its flattened head. Its arm reached out and used two sturdy yellow fingers to move the misplaced cup onto the adjacent green tray labeled “Compostables.”The trash-literate robot—part of a project called Everyday Robot—has been in development for years, but X just began discussing it publicly. A few of the machines make the rounds of trash stations used by staff on the second floor of X’s home in a converted mall in Mountain View, practicing their navigation skills and sorting recycling from compostables and landfill waste. Other robots of the same design work at a second Alphabet building nearby.
Trash sorting is not the project’s final goal. “We're going to try to build robots that can, you know, live amongst us and help us out in our daily lives,” says Hans Peter Brondmo, the Norwegian executive with tousled iron-colored hair leading the project. That’s the project’s moonshot, to use the lab’s self-mythologizing lingo for projects such as stratospheric internet balloons , the ill-fated face computer Google Glass, and flying wind turbines.Sorting trash was chosen as a convenient challenge to test the project’s approach to creating more capable robots. It’s using artificial intelligence software developed in collaboration with Google to make robots that learn complex tasks through on-the-job experience. The hope is to make robots less reliant on human coding for their skills, and capable of adapting quickly to complex new tasks and environments.

Hans Peter Brondmo, who leads X's robot project, hopes to one day make versions that help elderly people live more independently at home. Photograph: Lauryn A. Hill
The robot that moved WIRED’s misplaced coffee cup used a control system honed by five months of experience from dozens of robots sorting trash five days a week. X says its moonshot-hunting employees usually put around 20 percent of trash in the wrong place. The robots can reduce that down to less than 4 percent, helping Alphabet meet city of Mountain View recycling goals.

“We haven't solved the whole problem, but we've made enough progress that we have high confidence that we're onto something,” says Brondmo. As he speaks, robots occasionally buzz past his office on their rounds between trash stations—illustrating both progress and their limits; each is accompanied by at least one X employee, on hand to hit the red stop button on the robot’s neck if something goes wrong.