Why Google Bought Nest: A Theory

By Alexis C. Madrigal
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. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/01/why-google-bought-nest-a-theory/283048/