Boston Dynamics, the Massachusetts-based robotics company purchased by Alphabet in 2013, is apparently on the chopping block, according to a report from Bloomberg, over concerns that it won’t be able to sell any actual products in the next few years.
The lab is perhaps best known for producing some four-legged robots that dogs aren’t so sure about, and the humanlike Atlas robots, star of multiple creepy videos hinting at the demise of the human race (they also happened to be the robot many teams used at last summer’s DARPA Robotics Challenge).
After its purchase by Alphabet, Boston Dynamics came under the domain of Andy Rubin, the onetime head of Android, who was put in charge of Google’s fledgling robotics division. Rubin left Google in 2014 to run a tech incubator, and Boston Dynamics has floated adrift within Google’s corporate structure since then.
When Google reorganized into Alphabet last year, it folded much of its robotics work into Google X, its research lab for “moonshots.” According to Bloomberg, Astro Teller, the head of X, recently told employees that if robotics weren’t a viable solution for the problems that Alphabet is trying to solve, they would be reassigned. This message, along with the advice to potentially sell Boston Dynamics as it wasn’t a money-maker, was apparently inadvertently posted on internal Alphabet message boards, and sent to Bloomberg.
Alphabet wasn’t immediately available to comment on the potential sale, but a spokesperson for Alphabet also posted messages on the internal site saying that after the most recent Atlas video was posted to YouTube in February, the company wanted to distance itself from the robotics work. “There’s excitement from the tech press, but we’re also starting to see some negative threads about it being terrifying, ready to take humans’ jobs,” Courtney Hohne, the spokeswoman for Google X, reportedly posted online. “We don’t want to trigger a whole separate media cycle about where [Boston Dynamics] really is at Google,” she added.
Boston Dynamics’ robots are some of the most advanced robots in the world right now, and are in use at multiple universities and facilities working on creating useful humanoid robotics. But they are not money-making endeavors, it seems: Recently the US army said that it would not be using the dog-like robot Boston Dynamics built for it, as it was too loud, and also quite slow. The company did, however, receive nearly $11 million when DARPA contracted it to build Atlas for the Robotics Challenge in 2013, although it’s likely that that amount was dwarfed by the cost of developing and building the machine.
There are likely to be suitors for Boston Dynamics, however. Other companies interested in early-stage research might have the spare cash, and the lack of a timeframe that it needs to experiment. Bloomberg suggested that Amazon—which currently uses robots to move products around its warehouses, and is developing a drone delivery service—and Toyota, which recently pledged $1 billion into robotics research, could be potential buyers. Toyota’s new research head, Gill Pratt, also happened to be the person in charge of the DARPA Robotics Challenge. (Amazon was not immediately available for comment and Toyota declined to comment.)
While Boston Dynamics’ fate is currently unknown, it does at least give us a bit of hope that, at least for now, the robot revolution that Alphabet seems to be worried about, has been delayed just a little bit longer.