Google is looking to sell robotics firm Boston Dynamics after concluding that it’s unlikely to produce any marketable robot in the next few years, according to people familiar with the company who spoke to Bloomberg News.
Boston Dynamics has become famous for its impressive (and impressively creepy) videos featuring it torturing its robotic creations with pushes, kicks, shoves and heavy weights, to demonstrate their versatility and reliability.
But the firm, which was acquired by Google in 2013, has failed to live up to the aspirations placed upon it. Its machines, which were largely created in response to military contracts, haven’t been easy to adapt for potential commercial sale. And while Google had promised that Boston Dynamics wouldn’t take any further military projects, the company still suffered a blow when the US Marine Corps rejected the Big Dog robot, saying it was too noisy for practical use.
Adding to the problems was Boston Dynamics’ failure to integrate with the wider Google – now Alphabet – family. When Google bought Boston Dynamics, it was in the midst of an acquisition spree spearheaded by Andy Rubin, the former head of Android. Rubin had been moved into the company’s new robotics initiative, codenamed Replicant, and hired hundreds of new engineers. But within a year, he had quit the company, leaving Replicant leaderless.
Boston Dynamics, still headquartered in the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts, had never fully cohered with the wider company, and without strong leadership, remained distant from the Silicon Valley-based core of Google’s robotics division.
In November 2015, tensions between the two were accidentally made public to the wider Google workforce, after the minutes of a tense meeting was posted to a Google-wide forum. Replicant’s interim leader, Jonathan Rosenberg, had told Boston Dynamics that “we as a startup of our size cannot spend 30-plus percent of our resources on things that take 10 years,” adding, “there’s some time frame that we need to be generating an amount of revenue that covers expenses and (that) needs to be a few years”.
The founder of Boston Dynamics, Marc Raibert, responded” “I firmly believe the only way to get to a product is through the work we are doing in Boston. [I] don’t think we are the pie-in-the-sky guys as much as everyone thinks we are.”
A month later, Replicant was folded into Google’s wider “moonshot” division, Google X, which also has responsibility for the firm’s self-driving car project. But Boston Dynamics wasn’t included in the transfer, and was instead put up for sale, with potential buyers including Amazon and Toyota.
That goal was hastened, Bloomberg reports, with the release of the latest video from Boston Dynamics, which detailed its progress in building the Atlas bipedal robot. Although most of Boston Dynamics videos have been greeted with commentary on the unsettling nature of its creations, Atlas sparked a more negative response than most.
In yet more emails wrongly published to wider Google employees, Courtney Hohne, a spokeswoman for Google X, wrote: “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 … We’re not going to comment on this video because there’s really not a lot we can add, and we don’t want to answer most of the Qs it triggers.”
Hohne also asked to “distance X from this video”, because “we don’t want to trigger a whole separate media cycle about where Boston Dynamics really is at Google”.
Google declined to comment on the rumours.