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Alphabet is putting its prototype robots to work cleaning up around Google’s offices

What does Google’s parent company Alphabet want with robots? Well, it would like them to clean up around the office, for a start.

The company announced today that its Everyday Robots Project — a team within its experimental X labs dedicated to creating “a general-purpose learning robot” — has moved some of its prototype machines out of the lab and into Google’s Bay Area campuses to carry out some light custodial tasks.

“We are now operating a fleet of more than 100 robot prototypes that are autonomously performing a range of useful tasks around our offices,” said Everyday Robot’s chief robot officer Hans Peter Brøndmo in a blog post. “The same robot that sorts trash can now be equipped with a squeegee to wipe tables and use the same gripper that grasps cups can learn to open doors.”

These robots in question are essentially arms on wheels, with a multipurpose gripper on the end of a flexible arm attached to a central tower. There’s a “head” on top of the tower with cameras and sensors for machine vision and what looks like a spinning lidar unit on the side, presumably for navigation.

One of Alphabet’s Everyday Robot machines cleans the crumbs off a cafe table.
Image: Alphabet

As Brøndmo indicates, these bots were first seen sorting out recycling when Alphabet debuted the Everyday Robot team in 2019. The big promise that’s being made by the company (as well as by many other startups and rivals) is that machine learning will finally enable robots to operate in “unstructured” environments like homes and offices.

Right now, we’re very good at building machines that can carry out repetitive jobs in a factory, but we’re stumped when trying to get them to replicate simple tasks like cleaning up a kitchen or folding laundry.

Think about it: you may have seen robots from Boston Dynamics performing backflips and dancing to The Rolling Stones, but have you ever seen one take out the trash? It’s because getting a machine to manipulate never-before-seen objects in a novel setting (something humans do every day) is extremely difficult. This is the problem Alphabet wants to solve.

Unit 033 makes a bid for freedom.
Image: Alphabet

Is it going to? Well, maybe one day — if company execs feel it’s worth burning through millions of dollars in research to achieve this goal. Certainly, though, humans are going to be cheaper and more efficient than robots for these jobs in the foreseeable future. The update today from Everyday Robot is neat, but it’s far from a leap forward. You can see from the GIFs that Alphabet shared of its robots that they’re still slow and awkward, carrying out tasks inexpertly and at a glacial pace.

However, it’s still definitely something that the robots are being tested “in the wild” rather than in the lab. Compare Alphabet’s machines to Samsung’s Bot Handy, for example; a similar-looking tower-and-arm bot that the company showed off at CES last year, apparently pouring wine and loading a dishwasher. At least, Bot Handy looks like it’s performing these jobs, but really it was only carrying out a prearranged demo. Who knows how capable, if at all, this robot is in the real world? At least Alphabet is finding this out for itself.

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Tech News

President Biden Drives 2022 Ford F-150 Electric Prototype

Ford isn’t quite ready to reveal the 2022 F-150 Lightning electric pickup truck, but when the president of the United States wants a test drive, how do you say no?

President Joe Biden visited Ford’s Rouge Electric Vehicle Center, the Detroit-area factory that will build the Lightning, yesterday and got behind the wheel of a camouflaged prototype of the new truck. He’s likely the first person outside of Ford to drive the Lightning and gave it a positive review.

“This sucker’s quick,” Biden said after pulling up to a gaggle of media, as documented by C-SPAN cameras. The president even tried to time acceleration, saying his stopwatch showed zero to 60 mph in 4.3 seconds. What appears to be an un-camouflaged Lightning can also be seen in the background of photos taken during Biden’s factory visit. That’s not something Ford wants the general public to know just yet, as truck’s official reveal is tonight, but it’s hard to argue with that kind of publicity.

Biden is a genuine car enthusiast. He owns a 1967 Chevrolet Corvette convertible, which was a wedding gift from his father. As president, he has also become an advocate of electric vehicles, pushing for measures to boost sales, as well as more domestic battery production, and the electrification of government vehicle fleets. Still, as a Chevy owner, Biden might be a little disappointed that arch-rival Ford is launching its electric truck first.

The Lightning follows the Mustang Mach-E SUV and E-Transit van as Ford’s third mass-market electric vehicle. It may not be first, but it might be the most important. The internal combustion F-150 has been America’s bestselling vehicle for decades, so making it electric opens up a massive new market to EVs.

While Ford has never built an electric F-150 before, the name is familiar. The original Ford Lightning was a performance version of the F-150 sold in the 1990s and early 2000s. Boasting a powerful V8 engine, it was once crowned world’s fastest production pickup truck by Guinness World Records.

The 2022 Ford F-150 Lightning reveal streams at 9:30 p.m. ET tonight on Ford’s YouTube and social media channels. We’ll also have full coverage here at Digital Trends. The truck starts production in spring 2022.

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Surface Neo hands-on video shows a prototype without screens

Partly due to the pandemic and perhaps partly due to some behind-the-scenes management problems, what would have been Microsoft’s leap forward into the future of computing became an uneasy half step instead. The Surface Duo, while admirable, received mixed reviews due to software issues and design problems. Its larger Windows 10X counterpart, however, may have more or less been canceled by now. Microsoft has yet to officially admit that the Surface Neo has been scrapped but, at least for now, we can dream of what could have been thanks to this hands-on video of a nearly naked prototype.

The Surface Duo and Surface Neo shared some basic traits but that was a1156 sfar as it goes. Despite both sporting what Microsoft labels as “dual-screen foldable” designs, not only was the Surface Neo larger, it was also meant to run a new Windows 10X variant made exactly for this kind of device. As Windows 10X itself morphed into something totally different designed for laptops instead, the Surface Neo got pushed further and further into the background.

No word was heard about it recently aside from Panos Panay’s assurances last year that the device has merely been delayed, not canceled. Even insiders have fallen silent on any progress on that front. Now thanks to hardware hacker Calyx Hikari, we’re getting a glimpse of what the Surface Neo looks like, at least from the inside.

The hands-on video shows the Surface Neo’s internal design and components, which pretty much look like an enlarged Surface Duo. There is the same dual-battery design, for example, but curiously no sign of a fingerprint scanner. There are no screens either, so we can’t really see the device in action.

The appearance of this prototype, whether it’s the real deal or not, maybe a bit poignant for those who have been waiting for a dual-screen Windows device to finally hit the market. Those will have to look outside of Microsoft for that, though, considering the Surface Neo seems to be fated to never see the light of day.

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