AI and the Internet of Things Have Arrived. Andy Rubin Wants Them To Play Together Nicely.
Smack in the center of Palo Alto, Calif., sits a huge warehouse featuring three-story ceilings and at least 15,000 square feet of open space. Standing as it does in the very zip code that gave birth to Google, Facebook, and HP, this building represents some of the most valuable real estate on the planet. Inside, a platoon of workers bend metal and install soundproof glass, readying the structure for its rebirth. If Andy Rubin and his backers have their way, this former apricot canning facility will become ground zero for a massive shift in how society and business understand not just data, computing, and the Internet, but the very workings of the world around us.
In a decade or two, possibly sooner, we’ll look back at the Internet of today and chuckle at its primitive state. Back in 2016, we’ll tell our kids, we didn’t have the actual Internet. We’ll view 2016 as the beginning of a phase shift — a quickening not unlike the rise of Google search in 2001, or computing in the mid 1980s. 2016 will be remembered as the year the Internet broke free from its constraints of black glass screens and glowing monitors, and became one with the physical world. Call it the actuated Internet — a virtuous circle of real world objects, at-scale artificial intelligence, and command and control that animates everything of value in our lives. Rubin and his cofounders Bruce Leak, Peter Barrett, and Matt Hershenson are betting that their new venture, dubbed Playground, will play a central role in the making this vision a reality.
I meet Rubin on a fine spring day to explore Playground and discuss his long-term vision. I was drawn in by a recent Wired article outlining his ambitious plans. Rubin is known to most in the Valley as the creator of Android, Google’s open source answer to Apple’s tightly controlled iPhone. But Rubin is at heart a tinkerer, an inventor of robots, software agents, and new kinds of hardware devices. At Playground, Rubin and his team are building a new kind of factory — one that anticipates a world just around the corner, then builds products and companies that will thrive there.
Rubin’s clearly in his element as he shows me around Playground’s current facility — a smaller space adjacent to the showpiece currently under construction. Playground is part venture fund (it’s raised $300 million from Google, HP, and others), part incubator (it’s funded 14 companies with more on the way, seven of them housed in Playground’s headquarters), and part full-service design and rapid prototyping studio. Playground portfolio companies have unfettered access to highly skilled coders and industrial designers, multi-million-dollar computer lathes and 3D printers, and pretty much anything else they might need to create new kinds of products and companies.
Which begs the question: What’s the grand thesis tying this whole enterprise together? The Wired article gave it a shot, laddering Rubin’s new vision to the creation of a new, AI-driven computing platform — and indeed, Rubin frames Playground against this backdrop: Every 12 years or so, he tells me, a new computing platform emerges. Command line in the 1970s, graphical user interfaces in the late 80s, the Web in the 1990s, mobile in the mid-2000s. Everyone’s on the lookout for what’s next, and Wired pegged it as artificial intelligence as a service, but I’m not sure that entirely sums it up.
Rubin told me he’s got no aspirations to will such a platform into existence. He’s aware that a top-down implementation of such a complex ecosystem will certainly fail. Instead, he wants to be prepared when AI as a service emerges — to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right companies, teams, and infrastructure. Nearly every major tech company is already committing massive resources to AI as a service. Rubin’s play is to create businesses that will scale as these services come online.
Rubin’s companies synthesize digital and analog — painting the magic of digital onto the real world, and funneling the magic of the real world back into digital. The more things we light up with this synthesis, the closer we get to an “Internet of Actualization” — where the entire world can not only be computed, but also actuated — the Internet fuses with the physical, and we can control our world as if by magic.
Rubin remind me that VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet application, was already successful on the Apple II well before the rise of the MS-DOS and GUI platforms. Once those platforms scaled, spreadsheets became a massive business that spawned huge companies like Microsoft and (for a time, anyway) Lotus. In a way, Playground’s remit is to create VisiCalcs for the unfolding revolution in AI and the Internet of Things.
What ties Rubin’s investments together is a drive to light up the physical world with computable data and processes. Most of Playground’s companies make physical devices — hardware that can effect the real world, animated by data, sensors, and processing power. Put another way, Rubin’s companies synthesize digital and analog: painting the magic of digital onto the real world and funneling the magic of the real world back into digital. The more things we light up with this synthesis, the closer we get to an “Internet of Actualization” — where the entire world can not only be computed, but also actuated — the Internet fuses with the physical, and we can control our world as if by magic. (Rubin was an early engineer at General Magic, after all).
Consider the Web as we currently understand it. The Web is comprised of billions of digital objects — pages, databases, applications, and the like. Google rose to dominance by creating a platform that indexed all that data, and provided a method for navigating through it. Then Google created applications to make that data useful — Maps, Finance, etc.
But Google only has data about digital objects. Rubin sees everything in the real world as data waiting to be released, indexed, processed, understood, and actuated. “The Internet right now is a big brain in a jar,” he explains. “But there’s a whole world outside that jar.” Rubin’s mission is to create products and companies that connect the two. Rubin explains it this way: Get data about the real world, process it in the cloud, then take actions that in turn affect the real world.
So what does that look like? Rubin showed me several new companies at Playground that I couldn’t write about, and just a few that I can. Consider pHin, a small device you toss in your pool or hot tub. What does it do? It turns your pool water into data, then transmits that data to pHin headquarters, where the company analyzes your pool water’s chemical profile, determines what chemicals your pool needs, and custom manufactures a “laundry pod” of pool chemicals just for you. Toss in the pod, and your water is balanced to the perfect pH. You didn’t think your pool was a computable object in the actuated Internet, did you?
Here’s another example: uAvionix, a company founded by engineering legend Paul Beard, a tinkerer with more patents to his name than I could count (one of them led to the DVR, for example).
uAvionix has taken the hardware and processes used by the FAA to locate and connect aircraft in the sky — a complicated, hidebound system that requires the installation of an eight-pound transponder — and shrunk it to an 8-gram device called the Ping (at left). Why has he done this? So every drone on earth can fly with one, of course. Not only will this solve the near-term problem of drones running into commercial aircraft, but it also creates the equivalent of an “Internet of drones” — a pathway to identify, control, and ultimately coordinate every flying object in the air and on the ground (and of course, associate it with data about its payload, its location history, its owner, and on and on…). If we’re going to have drones zipping all over the place delivering us stuff, we’re going to need the Internet inside them, right?
Another of Playground’s investments is CastAR, a stealthy augmented reality company that uses glasses (yes, like Google Glass) to paint highly realistic three-dimensional visuals onto real world surfaces (it’s often lumped in with Magic Leap, Oculus, and others in the space). I demo’d CastAR’s technology, which featured several gaming applications. While the gaming use case is clearly exciting, what’s really mind-blowing is where the technology might end up, once miniaturized and connected to a powerful AI platform. I’ve long thought Augmented Reality — painting digital data over the real world — was both far more difficult and vastly more powerful than pure VR (the purview of Oculus). CastAR is positioning itself to both create an early win with an easy app (the VisiCalc of immersive gaming), but also to become the standard platform for casting any and all augmented reality, once the market matures (the Microsoft of AR).
Other Playground investments include deep learning infrastructure, health analytics applications, smart wifi devices, and more. Rubin’s just getting started, and by summer, his refactored apricot canning facility will be at full scale, spinning up more companies, ideas, and products. After all, Rubin’s got hundreds of millions to play with, and there’s certainly more where that came from. Once Playground is humming, Rubin has plans to open source its learnings, enabling an entire ecosystem based on the actualized Internet.
And that should comfort us. If a powerful, AI-actuated version of the Internet is coming, one that will be deeply woven into the fabric of the physical world , we need to think about its core philosophy. It could easily become oligarchic, tightly controlled by a few companies. But there’s a better option. It could be messy, robust, and open, like the original HTML-based Web and Rubin’s Android operating system. We vote for open — and we’re glad Rubin does as well.
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