Google’s parent company Alphabet is leaning towards putting its Boston Dynamics robotics division up for sale. The subsidiary was acquired in late 2013 and placed under its so-called ‘Replicant’ robotics group under Andy Rubin. According to a new report by Bloomberg, Toyota or Amazon could be interested in acquiring the technology.
Over the years, Boston Dynamics has posted a number of popular videos documenting its research progress, including a four-legged gas-guzzler dubbed LS3. More recently, the Alphabet division demonstrated a humanoid prototype as it trudged successfully through snowy terrain in a forest and carried boxes in a warehouse. The machine, named Atlas, was then bullied by a stick-wielding human tormentor, after which it exited the building in apparent disgust.
The latest video was entertaining and thought-provoking stuff, prompting conflicting responses among the public. According to Bloomberg, the overall research was also under debate within Alphabet, with the commercial prospects of the robot in doubt.
Internal conversations seen by Bloomberg indicated a lack of collaboration with other robotics researchers across Alphabet, and documented disagreement regarding an acceptable time horizon to commercial viability. Senior Alphabet leaders wanted a saleable product soon, with Jonathan Rosenberg, then the chief of robotics after Rubin left, quoted as saying, “we as a startup of our size cannot spend 30-plus percent of our resources on things that take ten years... 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 recent video of Atlas, with 14 million views and counting, caused additional debate inside Alphabet. Leaders expressed concern about Google being associated with such a “terrifying” portrait of robots “ready to take humans’ jobs,” said Courtney Hohne, a spokeswoman for Google, in a private internal forum.
Microsoft shut down its robotics hardware division in 2014, though Redmond's initiatives in the area of artificial intelligence (AI) continue unabated with Cortana and other research, including leveraging Minecraft. Microsoft, like Google, appears to be shying away from robotics hardware as it concentrates on the AI that could power the machines created by partners.
Google, for example, continues its AI research with Google Now, beating people at the game Go and self-driving cars with the possibility of licensing the technology instead of building its own automobiles. It was recently reported that Microsoft will partner with Japanese firm SoftBank on cloud-based robotics, with an eye towards humanoid robots that can help customers with their shopping needs. It's possible that Microsoft will assist SoftBank's ‘Pepper’ robot with its experience in speech recognition and language translation, as well as understanding human emotions in faces.