Here's why Google is building a robot army

For the past couple of weeks, we've all been wondering why Google bought Boston Dynamics, the company that makes those creepy Big Dog and PETMAN robots for the military. This comes after the company announced a project to eliminate death, and after building a secret installation out of cargo crates on a barge in San Francisco Bay. It's as if Google is in the early stages of building a city state.

Historically, city states like Athens in ancient Greece were contained within physical walls, anchored to one location. But their tentacles of influence might reach far and wide; the Greek culture that bloomed in Athens is said to have Hellenized many parts of the Middle East.

What are the main ingredients of a city state? It must have a ruling elite of course, much as a corporation does in its various executives and VPs. It must have a shared ideology, hopefully one that's boastfully vague — sort of like Google's motto "Don't be evil." Perhaps most importantly, it must have an army and an economy.

If you think of Google's Mountain View campus as a city state, and all its satellite campuses as colonies, then it was kind of inevitable that the company would raise an army. Already, it has a culture within its walls that is as strong as any city-state's. Googlers across the globe share common values, types of work and meals. They exist within a social hierarchy as clear-cut as any caste system in ancient Greece (though Google doesn't have slaves, which is nice). And they've even taken on a state-like role in defending U.S. assets against Chinese hackers.

But recently, Google's cultural goals have gotten a little more pronounced. They're not just out to make great web services like search, maps, and gmail. They're making driverless cars and funding Ray Kurzweil's efforts to eliminate human death. It's almost like the company is trying to build its own religion, based on vaguely environmentalist and Singulatarian ideas. They're acting less like a company, whose goals are entirely economic, and more like a city-state, whose goals include ineffable things like quality of life.

Google's robot army reminds me of novels like Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age or Marge Piercy's He, She and It, where companies form city-states that occasionally go to war with each other. In He, She, and It, the company/city makes its living from selling software, but has to build cyborg soldiers to defend its walls against hostile takeovers. And in Diamond Age, corporations create islands devoted to pursuits like recreating the Victorian age. The companies in these novels are no longer just economic entities. They are cultures, conducting social experiments and propagating belief systems that won't lead directly to profit.

These days, Google reaches into almost every corner of our lives in the West — it shapes the way we see the digital world. Those of us whose culture comes from the internet are already living in a Googlized world, just as people beyond Greece lived in a Hellenized world back in the 300s BCE. It makes sense that this city-state corporation known as Google now has the ability to wage war in the real world as well as cyberspace.

Though Google's leadership may believe its acquisition of Boston Dynamics will help usher in a future of AI robots, it may actually be ushering in a future that looks more like history than The Matrix. We may be witnessing the return of the city-state, led by corporations rather than governments. Inside Google's walls, this transformation might be Utopia. Outside — well, we don't have to worry about outside. We'll have the robots to protect us against that.