On Thursday, Japanese technology conglomerate SoftBank agreed to acquire two firms that build two- and four-legged walking robots from Alphabet Inc. SoftBank which sells its chatty humanoid robot Pepper will now add Boston Dynamics and Tokyo-based SHAFT, to its growing artificial intelligence portfolio. It did not reveal the terms of the deal.
Soon as the deal was announced, SoftBank’s share peaked as much as 7.9 percent, tapping a 17-year high.
Boston Dynamics, a maker of animal-themed robotic weapons will bring significant credibility to SoftBank’s robotic efforts led by Kent Yoshida.
The SoftBank Boston Dynamics deal is an offloading of some of Google’s robotics investments. Between 2013 and 2014, Google snapped up a series of robotic acquisitions – including SCHAFT, Boston Dynamics, and Bot & Dolly – making it the most active acquirer of private robotics companies. Google’s Boston Dynamics acquisition eclipsing billions left tongues wagging. Andy Rubin, the man who built Android operating system, headed Google’s robotic division.
Google's Flailing Robotics Arm
The tension between Google and Boston Dynamics escalated in 2014, and soon after Andy Rubin left Replicant (Google’s robotics division). So what exactly happened? What led to Google’s decision to offload the two most brilliant acquisitions from 2013?
When Boston Dynamics posted a video of a military robot Atlas, a bipedal capable of walking in the snow, picking up boxes and recovering from getting kicked, Google was not amused. The relationship was heading south when Google started pushing the team to work on a consumer-friendly product.
Trouble started mounting soon after Rubin’s departure left a leadership vacuum. Many employees under Replicant felt disappointed by his departure. A year after, Google tried to take control of Replicant to learn what they were developing and how it could be translated into a consumer product. Basically, Google wanted a consumer friendly robot that could help with day-to-day tasks.
The change in vision impelled Boston Dynamics to switch from hydraulic actuators and electric to only electric. And so, they decided to go in a different direction than what Google wanted.
An internal email from Courtney Hohne, a director of communications at Google and the spokeswoman for Google X, wrote in an email to “distance X from this video,” and that “we don't want to trigger a whole separate media cycle about where BD really is at Google.”
Soon after, Google began talks with Toyota Research Institute to offload its robotics division Boston Dynamics. What followed was a flurry of senior executive departures.
James Kuffner, the co-founder of Google’s robotics division, left the company to join Toyota’s artificial intelligence research lab. Joseph Bondaryk, the operations manager for Boston Dynamics also joined Toyota Research Institute. Other notable departures to Toyota Research Institute include Adam Geboff, senior systems and hardware engineer for Replicant, and Philipp Michel, who worked as a senior roboticist.
Of course, the Boston Dynamics acquisition never materialized, and now the robotics company has a Japanese buyer.
SoftBank Boston Dynamics Deal
The enthusiasm SoftBank has been drumming up for years has met with little success. The company marketed Pepper aggressively after it was unveiled in 2014. It says the friendly humanoid is able to understand how people are feeling and react accordingly. After launching a few pilots with Pepper assisting customers in retail stores in 2016, the efforts eventually paid off. There are around 10,000 Pepper robots around the globe, including at a retail shop in Palo Alto, a Pizza Hut in Singapore, on cruise ships, at resort hotels and in homes across Japan.
It’ll be interesting to see what fate awaits for Boston Dynamics and SCHAFT. There are valid concerns that SoftBank Boston Dynamics deal will go south. SoftBank has a lot of talent, intellectual property and tech at its disposal. Let's hope something truly amazing will come out of the SoftBank Boston Dynamics deal. We’ll keep you updated as learn more.