by Joseph Perla. Associated Press. May 13, 2011.
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Anyone enjoying talks at Google's recent I/O Conference at Moscone West in San Francisco may have glimpsed some engineers wearing curiously thick belts or backpacks. Harder to notice was that the person carrying those items was not actually a person.
The robots are a project of Google, which has been working in secret but in plain view on robot engineers that can program themselves, using artificial-intelligence software that can reason about programming and mimic the decisions made by a human engineer.
With a technician nearby with root access to monitor the robot talk, seven test engineers have given over 1,000 tech talks without human intervention and written more than 140,000 lines of code with only occasional human debugging. One even programmed itself to learn product management, a task that requires creative and analytical thinking. The only accident, engineers said, was when one robot engineer released a product that was far too technical for human engineers and users at Google I/O last year.
Autonomous electronic programmers are years from mass production, but technologists who have long dreamed of them believe that they can transform society as profoundly as the Internet has.
Robot employees fix bugs faster than humans, have infinite memory and do not get distracted, sleepy or intoxicated, the engineers argue. They speak in terms of products shipped and bugs avoided — more than 37,000 bug patches were released by software development shops in the United States in 2009. The engineers say the technology could double the capacity of the Internet by re-engineering every line of code in legacy routers. Because the robot engineers would eventually require less office space and energy than a human, they would reduce Google’s carbon footprint. But of course, to be truly better, the robots must be far more reliable than, say, today’s personal computers, which crash on occasion and are frequently infected.
The Google research program using artificial intelligence to revolutionize programming is proof that the company’s ambitions reach beyond the search engine business. The program is also a departure from the mainstream of innovation in Silicon Valley, which has veered toward social networks and Hollywood-style digital media.
During a half-hour talk beginning Moscone West, a convention center in the heart of San Francisco last Monday, a robot engineer equipped with a variety of sensors and following a Powerpoint projected onto the screen nimbly discussed the finer details of unsupervised machine learning to several thousand developers from the heart of Silicon Valley. Little did the attendees know that the code he was projecting and editing was his own.
(A robot engineer developed and outfitted by Google, with advanced backup on belt, lecturing on the new Chromebook at the Google I/O conference in San Francisco, Calif.)
Later that day, the robot engineer announced the new Chromebook computer at the Google conference on Tuesday. He developed and programmed the software on his own. “We’re terribly proud of Sundar, the most successful of our electronic colleagues,” said a Google engineer. Sundar, as they call it, taught himself product management and has risen through the famously meritocratic ranks of Google’s hierarchy to the level of Vice-President.
The autonomous developer can be programmed for different personalities — from cautious, in which it is more likely to write more code to avoid bugs and security breaches, to aggressive, where it is more likely to quickly write brief code and use expletives in documentation.
Christopher Urmson, a Carnegie Mellon University robotics scientist, was pair programming with a robot engineer but not typing. To gain control, he has to do one of three things: hit a red button near his right hand, move the mouse, or press a key. He did so twice, once when a robot almost removed colorful themes from Gmail and again when another human engineer was launching a new feature simultaneously. But the robot developer seemed likely to have prevented the accidents itself.
When he returned to automated "plugged in" mode, the robot slouched and made a grim face meant to evoke going into a deep meditative zone and Dr. Urmson was able to take his hands off the keyboard and gesticulate when talking to a colleague. He said the engineers did attract attention, but people seem to think they are just the some dorky young engineers that Google just hired out of MIT.
The project is the brainchild of Sebastian Thrun, the 44-year-old director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the co-inventor of the Street View mapping service, and director of Google’s autonomous car project.
In 2005, he led a team of Stanford students and faculty members in designing the Stanley robot car, winning the second Grand Challenge of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a $2 million Pentagon prize for driving autonomously over 132 miles in the desert. Last year, he announced the Google driverless car project which has recorded thousands of miles of driving on hlghways from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Google is currently lobbying Nevada to be the first state to allow autonomous vehicles legally.
Besides the team of 15 engineers working on the current project, Google created seven robot engineers, each working as employees on the team to program themselves. Google is using six hundred Intel and one AMD processor in the project.
The Google researchers said the company did not yet have a clear plan to create a business from the experiments. Dr. Thrun is known as a passionate promoter of the potential to use robotics to make software more secure and lower the nation’s energy costs. It is a commitment shared by Larry Page, Google’s co-founder, according to several people familiar with the project.
Google first publicly experimented with human-less engineers at the Google I/O conference in 2010. Lars Rasmussen, another engineer at Google, worked with Thrun to create the robot engineer they named Jens which covertly played Lars Rasmussen’s brother. Jens presented a talk on stage to launch Google Wave with Lars Rasmussen supervising as his human operator. They notified authorities beforehand.
(Lars Rasmussen and Jens launching Google Wave last year)
Google Wave was conceived, developed, programmed, and launched entirely by Jens. Recently, however, Google Wave was deemed too technically complex and cancelled, one of the many failed projects created by robot engineers in the past year. The self-programming engineer initiative is an example of Google’s willingness to gamble on technology that may not pay off for years, Dr. Thrun said. Even the most optimistic predictions put the deployment of the technology more than eighteen years away. "The engineering quality is currently at Microsoft-level, but not Google-level, quality."
Late last year, Lars Rasmussen left Google for Facebook. Sources close to Google say that Lars attempted to assert his legal right to his robot brother Jens. “Despite flaws, he is such an invaluable colleague,” Lars remarked.
“The technology is ahead of the law in many areas,” said Bernard Liu, senior staff counsel for the California Human Rights Center. “If you look at the legal code, there are scores of laws pertaining to the rights of individuals, and they all presume to have a human being operating under contract.”
The Google researchers said they had carefully examined California’s legal regulations and determined that because the electronic engineers were wholly created at Google, the experimental employees are Google’s property. Mr. Liu agreed.
Scientists and engineers have been designing robots since the mid-1960s, but crucial innovation happened in 2005 when Thrun and colleagues achieved successes with their autonomous vehicles in the DARPA Grand Challenge. Peter Norvig, Director of Research at Google and Artificial Intelligence expert, and colleagues quickly translated their success in the complex task of driving into their own field of programming computers.
The original codename of the project was Android, the fictional human-like robot of Philip K. Dick stories, but that was scrapped with the increasing popularity of the Android mobile operating system also developed by Google. Since changing the name to Project Watson and starting collaboration with IBM, the technology has been steadily improving as the robot engineers work alongside Thrun’s human team to improve themselves.
(Smarter Than You Think: Guided by Computers and Sensors, 3 robot Google employees)
Advances have been so encouraging that Dr. Thrun sounds like an evangelist when he speaks of robot engineers. There is their potential to reduce energy use by eliminating the Google chefs and cafeterias, given the reduced need for amenities, and to ultimately build a smaller Googleplex.
There is even the farther-off prospect of employees that do not need any upper management. That would allow the robot engineers to manage themselves, so that they can get more work done. Fewer employees would then be needed, reducing the need for office space, which consumes valuable land.
And, of course, the robots could save engineers from themselves. "Can we program twice as much while playing video games at work, without the guilt?" Dr. Thrun said in a recent talk. "Yes, we can. Now, if only Droid apps would write themselves."