Why Google Bought Nest: A Theory

At its core, Nest is a robotics company.
Roboticist Yoky Matsuoka, the vice president of technology at Nest (ISU Tech)

Google is acquiring Nest, makers of a smart thermostat, for a reported $3.2 billion. 

Perhaps it seems obvious why Google would want to buy the company, founded by former Apple executive Tony Faddell. The comments on Twitter were immediate, for sure. For example, investor Howard Lindzon wrote, "[Google] wants all your home data."

But I think it's easier to slot in this purchase with Google's recent push into robotics, led by the former head of Android, Andy Rubin.

Nest always thought of itself as a robotics company; the robot is just hidden inside this sleek Appleish case. 

Look at who the company brought in as its VP of technology: Yoky Matsuoka, a roboticist and artificial intelligence expert from the University of Washington.

In an interview I did with her in 2012, Matsuoka explained why that made sense. She saw Nest positioned right in a place where it could help machine and human intelligence work together: "The intersection of neuroscience and robotics is about how the human brain learns to do things and how machine learning comes in to augment that."

We brought Matsuoka to a summit in Silicon Valley where she described her work in robotics in rehabilitation and how it related to Nest. She put a picture of a yin yang on the screen and said this:

This is the picture I constantly come back to. The yin yang between understanding human learning and machine learning and that combination, that intersection, is exactly where I live. Some things, machines shouldn't learn it. We should let people learn it. Because otherwise people are gonna get lazy and never adapt. And that's a bad thing for rehabilitation. If we want them to get better. Machines probably shouldn't do all the things. But at the same time, things humans are really bad at, maybe machines should be learning that for them, ahead of time. Understand exactly how humans are like and then slowly maybe let humans take control back. This is what we're going to come back to. I wanted to tell you the history of why I'm fascinated with this intersection because this is going to help you save energy. 

In other words: Nest is a cryptorobotics company. It deals in sensing, automation, and control. It may not make a personable, humanoid robot, but it is producing machine intelligences that can do things in the physical world. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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