Google said to put Bos­ton Dy­nam­ics ro­bot­ics unit up for sale

The Pak Banker - - COMPANIES/BOSS -

The video, pub­lished to YouTube on 23 Fe­bru­ary, was awe-in­spir­ing and scary. A two-legged hu­manoid ro­bot trudges through the snow, some­how main­tain­ing its bal­ance. An­other ro­bot with two arms and pads for hands crouches down and lifts a brown box and del­i­cately places it on a shelf-then some­how stays upright while a hu­man tries to push it over with a hockey stick. A third ro­bot top­ples over and clam­bers back to its feet with ease.

Tens of mil­lions of peo­ple viewed the video over the next few weeks. Google and the divi­sion re­spon­si­ble for the video, Bos­ton Dy­nam­ics, were seem­ingly push­ing the fron­tier in ro­bot tech­nol­ogy.

But be­hind the scenes a more pedes­trian drama was play­ing out. Ex­ec­u­tives at Google par­ent Al­pha­bet Inc., ab­sorbed with mak­ing sure all the var­i­ous com­pa­nies un­der its cor­po­rate um­brella have plans to gen­er­ate real rev­enue, con­cluded that Bos­ton Dy­nam­ics isn't likely to pro­duce a mar­ketable prod­uct in the next few years and have put the unit up for sale, ac­cord­ing to two peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the com­pany's plans.

Pos­si­ble ac­quir­ers in­clude the Toy­ota Re­search In­sti­tute, a divi­sion of Toy­ota Mo­tor Corp., and Ama­ Inc., which makes ro­bots for its ful­fil­ment cen­ters, ac­cord­ing to one per­son. Google and Toy­ota de­clined to com­ment, and Ama­zon didn't re­spond to re­quests for com­ment. Google ac­quired Bos­ton Dy­nam­ics in late 2013 as part of a spree of ac­qui­si­tions in the field of ro­bot­ics. The deals were spear­headed by Andy Rubin, for­mer chief of the An­droid divi­sion, and brought about 300 ro­bot­ics en­gi­neers into Google. Rubin left the com­pany in Oc­to­ber 2014. Over the fol­low­ing year, the ro­bot ini­tia­tive, dubbed Repli­cant, was plagued by lead­er­ship changes, fail­ures to col­lab­o­rate be­tween com­pa­nies and an un­suc­cess­ful ef­fort to re­cruit a new leader.

At the heart of Repli­cant's trou­ble, said a per­son fa­mil­iar with the group, was a re­luc­tance by Bos­ton Dy­nam­ics ex­ec­u­tives to work with Google's other ro­bot en­gi­neers in Cal­i­for­nia and Tokyo and the unit's fail­ure to come up with prod­ucts that could be re­leased in the near term.

Ten­sions be­tween Bos­ton Dy­nam­ics and the rest of the Repli­cant group spilled into open view within Google, when writ­ten min­utes of a 11 Novem­ber meet­ing and sev­eral sub­se­quent e-mails were in­ad­ver­tently pub­lished to an on­line fo­rum that was ac­ces­si­ble to other Google work­ers. Th­ese doc­u­ments were made avail­able to Bloomberg News by a Google em­ployee who spot­ted them. The Novem­ber meet­ing was run by Jonathan Rosen­berg, an ad­viser to Al­pha­bet chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer Larry Page and for­mer Google se­nior vice pres­i­dent, who was tem­po­rar­ily in charge of the Repli­cant group. In the meet­ing, Rosen­berg said, "we as a start-up of our size can­not spend 30%-plus of our re­sources on things that take 10 years," and that "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."

Aaron Edsinger, di­rec­tor of ro­bot­ics at Google in San Fran­cisco, said that he had been try­ing to work with Bos­ton Dy­nam­ics to cre­ate a low-cost elec­tric quadruped ro­bot and felt "a bit of a brick wall" around the divi­sion, ac­cord­ing to the min­utes of the meet­ing. Marc Raib­ert, a for­mer Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy pro­fes­sor and the founder of Bos­ton Dy­nam­ics, said that "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," the min­utes show.

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