Google looks to sell robot-maker Boston Dynamics

Despite popular interest in Boston Dynamics' robots, the robotics startup's inability to spin a profit and concerns over the direction of humanoid robotic innovation have prompted Google to put the company up for sale.

Tyrone Siu/REUTERS/File
Bipedal humanoid robot "Atlas", primarily developed by the American robotics company Boston Dynamics, is presented during a news conference at the University of Hong Kong, in this photo from October.

Boston Dynamics gained notoriety over the past year, as videos of its robots became popular on the Internet. Yet now, reports say that Boston Dynamics’ parent company, Google, has decided to put the robotic innovation division up for sale.

Why would Google give up a company that has generated so much interest?

Although videos of Boston Dynamics’ engineers jogging alongside eerily real looking robotic dogs or prodding human sized robots with hockey sticks have garnered thousands of views on YouTube, Google says the company is unlikely to have a marketable product in the next two years.

And ironically, it could be the very success of these videos that doomed Boston Dynamics to sale.

According to Business Insider, the video of the human-like robot, which generated so much interest online, has frightening implications for the job security of human workers. Google indicated unwillingness to handle those implications.

"There is excitement from the tech press,” said Google X communications director Courtney Hohne in an email obtained by Bloomberg. “but we are also starting to see some negative threads about it being terrifying, ready to take humans' jobs."

"We do not want to trigger a whole separate media cycle about where BD really is at Google," Hohne said later. "We are not going to comment on this video because there's really not a lot we can add, and we do not want to answer most of the Qs it triggers."

Google’s relationship with Boston Dynamics has been rocky for months. Google first acquired Boston Dynamics in 2013. From the beginning, the relationship between the companies faced difficulties.

Boston Dynamics engineers proved reluctant, according to Bloomberg, to work with Google’s other engineers. The company was also disappointed that it was not allowed to remain a standalone company, but was instead moved into Replicant, the tech giant’s robotics division.

Another source of tensions between Google and Boston Dynamics was Google’s insistence on marketable products and profits.

“We as a startup of our size cannot spend 30-plus percent of our resources on things that take ten years," said Jonathan Rosenberg, an advisor to Google parent company Alphabet CEO Larry Page, "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."

Part of the challenge seems to be that Google hoped that Boston Dynamics would produce a marketable robotic product in the short term, while continuing to work on long term products. Boston Dynamics, however, seems focused on the long term.

Boston Dynamics founder Marc Raibert defended his company in a meeting with Google, saying, "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."

Due to these differences, Boston Dynamics did not join the rest of the Replicant division when the other robotics programs became part of Google X in December.

Instead, it was put up for sale.

There is already speculation as to which companies will be interested. Amazon, for example, has a robotics division that creates robots for its warehouses. Boston Dynamics’ humanoid robot could fit well in Amazon’s robotics plan. The Toyota Research Institute could also be interested.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.