Google said to put Boston Dynamics robotics unit up for sale
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 Amazon.com 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.