Three years after acquiring the MIT robotics lab Boston Dynamics, makers of Atlas and other scary bots, Alphabet (Google’s parent company) is selling it off to Softbank, a Japanese telecommunications company already known for its less terrifying robots like Pepper that might soon be getting some impressive upgrades. It turns out that posting YouTube videos of nightmare-inducing robots isn’t as profitable as once hoped.
Details of the sale, like how much Softbank paid for Google’s now defunct Replicant division haven’t been revealed yet. You’ll recall the skunkworks was founded by Android-creator Andy Rubin before he left Alphabet to make smartphones again. But the sale also includes Schaft, another talented robot-builder which dominated the DARPA challenge a few years ago.
Alphabet has reportedly been trying to sell off its robot division for almost a year now, with companies like Amazon and Toyota initially suspected as possible buyers. While Boston Dynamics has been responsible for creating some of the most advanced robots ever developed, including the humanoid Atlas, and the four-legged Spot and Big-Dog, advanced technologies don’t come cheap. The reality is that Alphabet was still staring down years of expensive R&D before it could profitably sell its robotic creations, and Boston Dynamics and Schaft became victims of the company’s efforts to scale back its bleeding-edge moonshot investments.
Back in February, Boston Dynamics revealed a bot called Handle, a two-wheeled version of Atlas that the lab’s founder, Marc Raibert, claimed could be built and sold much cheaper than bots like Atlas. By that point Alphabet was already shopping Boston Dynamics and Schaft around as part of cost-saving and restructuring initiatives that saw other moonshot projects getting axed as well. And many suspected that Handle, who had undoubtedly been in development for a while already, was only revealed as a way to sweeten the pot for potential buyers.
So what does Softbank want with Boston Dynamics and Schaft? The Japanese telecommunications giant has already poured mountains of cash into developing its friendly-looking Pepper and NAO robots, after acquiring Aldebaran Robotics in 2012 for over a $100 million, and investing $20 million in Fetch Robotics in 2015. Demand for Pepper and NAO in Japan has been huge, with Softbank selling out of limited runs almost as soon as they’re made available. So the company is clearly confident there’s enough immediate consumer demand to make a few dollars selling bots.
In a press release issued about the acquisition, Softbank’s Chairman & CEO Masayoshi Son praised the work Boston Dynamics has done. “Smart robotics are going to be a key driver of the next stage of the Information Revolution, and Marc and his team at Boston Dynamics are the clear technology leaders in advanced dynamic robots. I am thrilled to welcome them to the SoftBank family and look forward to supporting them as they continue to advance the field of robotics and explore applications that can help make life easier, safer and more fulfilling.”
But will Softbank take the same approach that Google did and just let Boston Dynamics and Schaft develop advanced robots for the sake of pushing the field forward? Or does it plan to merge them with its existing robotics teams in hopes of making robots like Pepper and NAO more appealing to consumers? R&D is expensive, and it’s safe to assume that Boston Dynamics and Schaft didn’t come cheap, so the company will almost certainly carefully balance both approaches, which means your dreams of a robot butler are suddenly a lot closer to becoming reality.