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Softbank Buys Boston Dynamics From Google

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Moonshot project shot down. Alphabet finally offloads unwanted robotics division Boston Dynamics

Japanese telecommunications and Internet business Softbank has purchased Boston Dynamics from Google’s parent Alphabet for an undisclosed sum.

The robotics division of Google is best known for its robot dog and human-like bipeds, but its future had been uncertain for a while now

This is because Alphabet had been seeking a buyer since March 2016, as part of its strategy on extracting revenue streams from its so called “moonshot” projects.

boston dynamics robotsMoonshot Offload

Google had always harboured robotic ambitions, and in December 2013 it completed the acquisition of Boston Dynamics for an undisclosed sum.

The robotics firm was made famous by DARPA-funded projects such as the robotic pack mule BigDog and bipedal humanoid rescue worker Atlas.

But amid reports that Boston Dynamics never sat easy within Google’s corporate structure, Alphabet began seeking buyers last year.

It never gave a reason for the sale, but it was thought that Alphabet had been evaluating its various “moonshot” projects, and believed that Boston Dynamics wasn’t likely to produce a marketable product in the next few years, and hence it would not deliver a timely return to investors.

Good Fit?

But the robotics firm may well have a better fit with Softbank, which in 2015 began selling its ‘emotional’ robot, nicknamed Pepper. That robot went on sale to American consumers for $1,611 (£1,006).

Pepper

Pepper is supposed to be one of the first genuinely interactive robots, able to take in the surroundings into consideration before reacting pro-actively using proprietary algorithms. It can make jokes and estimate human emotions based on expressions and voice tones, including fear and excitement. It will adjust its interaction based on these inputs.

Softbank meanwhile announced that as part of its transaction with Alphabet, it is also buying robotics group Schaft.

And it should be remembered that the Japanese firm is not shy about spending money on acquisitions. Last year it purchased British chip designer ARM for £24 billion.

“Today, there are many issues we still cannot solve by ourselves with human capabilities,” said Masayoshi Son, Chairman & CEO of SoftBank Group. “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.”

“We at Boston Dynamics are excited to be part of SoftBank’s bold vision and its position creating the next technology revolution, and we share SoftBank’s belief that advances in technology should be for the benefit of humanity,” said Marc Raibert, CEO and founder of Boston Dynamics.

“We look forward to working with SoftBank in our mission to push the boundaries of what advanced robots can do and to create useful applications in a smarter and more connected world,” he added.

Famous Robots

Boston Dynamics was spun off from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) way back in 1992. The company is noted for creating robots that run, climb sheer walls and jump over obstacles.

This includes BigDog – a three feet long, 240 pound quadruped robot that can traverse rough terrain at four miles per hour, while carrying another 340 pounds on its back. This metal beast was designed for the Army, to act as a means of cargo transport in the areas with no roads. The US Marines however rejected it because of the noise it makes which could give away troop positions.

Boston Dynamics also created Atlas, a 330 pound humanoid robot that was able to navigate through rubble, independently climb over barricades and even balance on one leg. In the future, Atlas or its descendants could participate in search and rescue operations, capable of opening doors and operating equipment designed for human

In March this year the firm unveiled a 6.5-foot tall robot called Handle that can travel up to speeds at 9mph and jump up to four feet in the air.

Handle Boston DynamicsGoogle for its part meanwhile still retains a number of robotic patents, including a patent to give robots customised personalities.

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