Apple hired ex-Segway robotics whiz to possibly work on a ‘fantastic’ moonshot project

By , Apr 2, 2013

Segway

It’s understandable a company of Apple’s stature is constantly on the lookout for the brightest minds in the industry. It also goes without saying that Apple, the world’s leading technology brand by both valuation and reputation, is constantly hiring all sorts of talented experts and scientists in various fields of expertise.

But why on Earth would the iPhone maker hire a former robotics expert who helped invent the Segway personal transporter, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s favorite means of transportation?

Bloomberg Businessweek in an eyebrow-raising article entitled “Apple and the Mysterious Case of the Missing Moonshot” suggests that John Morrell may have left his post at Yale University and joined Apple last year to participate in a “pretty fantastic” project…

Author Ashlee Vance opens his Bloomberg Businessweek piece with the following:

When John Morrell left his post at Yale University last year and decamped to Apple, some members of the robotics community were perplexed.

Morrell, a robotics whiz and one of the leading engineers behind the Segway, had been tapped as director for Yale’s newly opening Center for Engineering Innovation & Design.

This center marked a play by Yale to reinvigorate its engineering and applied sciences efforts. (You may not have noticed, but Yale grads haven’t exactly been killing it in the technology scene.)

Morrell had been overseeing research around how robots climb stairs and open doors, and how humans generally interact with machines. And then – poof – the superstar director bailed on the project.

The author quotes unnamed roboticist experts who speculate Morrell must be working on “something pretty fantastic” to have quit the Yale post.

According to Wikipedia, John Morrell was a Dynamics Engineer for Segway.

John Morrell image 001
John Morrell, on the left.

Notably, Segway-riding Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is a member of a Segway Polo team, the Silicon Valley Aftershocks. Here we see him teaching Segway Polo in the first online Segway Polo Training Lesson.

Morrell isn’t the only member of the original Segway team to have joined Apple.

Other Segway engineers who now work at Apple include Doug Field, Segway’s former chief technology officer who is now Apple’s vice president for product design.

Morrell himself, according to “a person familiar with Apple’s engineering teams,” works in the Mac software group.

While we can only speculate on the nature of Morrell’s hiring, I have a feeling there’s more to this than meets the eye. LinkedIn profiles don’t tell the whole story and we really have no clue as to what these robotics experts have actually been working on at Apple’s Mac software group.

Tim Cook stated publicly in May of last year that Apple would double-down on security in order to prevent internal leaks and it’s been rumored that the company occasionally assigns people to work on fake projects (though some beg to differ).

One pretty unlikely explanation entails involvement in Apple’s rumored next big things: a smartwatch dubbed iWatch and a standalone television set nicknamed by the press the iTV.

A more plausible scenario involves Apple needing world-class robotics experts to devise production processes for the thousands of highly sophisticated robots that Foxconn, Apple’s prime manufacturing partner, has been deploying slowly over the past few months.

iRobot Apple

It’s also plausible that Apple is after what Silicon Valley folks call “moonshot” projects, basically the mind-blowing stuff like Google’s self-driving cars or its smart spectacles.

If you ask me, a gadget maker just doesn’t hire one of the most reputable robotics experts in the world to work on the Mac software.

The author of the Businessweek article acknowledges as much, noting that “it’s certainly possible that Apple has some top-secret skunkworks cooking up amazing things.”

Indeed, with $137 billion in cash and $3.4 billion spent per year on research and development, Apple is capable of muscling its way into pretty much any major industry outside Silicon Valley’s primary focus of interest.

For example, we know for a fact Steve Jobs wanted to take on Detroid with an iCar project.

icar

Moreover, Apple’s CEO had a sit-down meeting with Ferrari President and Chairman Luca di Montezemolo last year and iCloud boss Eddy Cue now has a seat on the Ferrari board.

Apple also owns an exclusive worldwide license to a Terminator-like custom alloy called Liquidmetal, but we still don’t know what products the company might build using this super-strong material which possesses the processability of plastics.

Your guess is as good as ours so feel free to speculate down in the comments.

What kinds of robotics-oriented devices could Apple be developing, if any?

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  • http://twitter.com/myorangeisstuck wahaha

    Cant wait for the iWheel or iSeg or iMove

  • Ryan

    iRobot, for sure.

  • Lordthree

    “mind-blowing stuff like Google’s self-driving cars or its smart spectacles.”

    “Real artists SHIP”

    Google has never released a ‘moonshot’ product. Everything they do well like maps and search are the result of a decade of very evolutionary development. They’ve never released anything REVOLUTIONARY.

  • ReanimationXP

    Apparently “moonshot” is the buzzword of 2013 now..

  • http://twitter.com/El_Barto_01 El Barto

    Let me make one correction:

    Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s favorite means of transportation and best way to pee…

    Don’t take my word for it….

    http://gizmodo.com/5095603/woz-really-does-everything-on-his-segway