It’s official: Boston Dynamics is being acquired by SoftBank. The news, announced yesterday, comes a year after rumors of Google’s intentions to sell its robotics company surfaced. Now that Atlas, Spot, and the whole robot family are in the hands of a Japanese telecoms company, what’s next?
To see how SoftBank could implement these advanced robotics technologies, it’s worth noting why Alphabet sold in the first place. In 2013, Google (now under Alphabet) nabbed a myriad of robotics companies, including Boston Dynamics and Schaft. Combined, these companies possessed unparalleled expertise in bipedal robots and electronic actuators.
The Google robotics division named “Replicant” kicked off later that year. It was Larry Page’s idea to create general purpose robots, and Android founder Andy Rubin was put in charge of the newfangled group. By December of 2013, Google had acquired 7 robotics companies. It was an odd bunch too. Redwood Robotics built “next-generation” robotic arms and Holomni designed “high-tech” robot wheels.
The acquisition spree seemed jumbled, but that was part of the plan.
Google’s strategy was to scoop up many different robotics companies, each with expertise in a different area. This way, Replicant could combine the various technologies and roll out some sort of consumer-facing robot technology by 2020, according to an email sent by Rubin himself.
When Rubin left in 2014, the robotics division was struggling. It was unclear what Alphabet would do with Replicant, despite the impressive robotics technology delivered by Boston Dynamics and Schaft. Replicant was eventually dissolved by Astro Teller, reported Bloomberg. At the time, Alphabet was focused on cutting back X, the research division developing projects like Loon and Wing.
Up for grabs
Boston Dynamics, the most high-profile company out of Replicant, was put up for sale last year. Rumors that Toyota would purchase the company appeared. That makes sense too. The automaker has been developing humanoid robots for decades.
In an unlikely deal, it seems the robots are heading back to the motherland. Japan’s SoftBank has agreed to purchase Boston Dynamics from Alphabet for an unknown price.
“Today, there are many issues we still cannot solve by ourselves with human capabilities. 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, said Masayoshi Son, CEO of SoftBank, in a statement. “I am thrilled to welcome them to the SoftBank family and look forward to supporting them as they continue to advance the field of robotics and explore applications that can help make life easier, safer and more fulfilling.”
SoftBank will also acquire Schaft, a robotics company that Google nabbed during its binge purchasing of robotics companies in 2013 and 2014. Schaft, like Boston Dynamics, focuses on humanoid robots. The company spun out of the JSK Robotics Laboratory at the University of Tokyo and has worked on many bipedal robots. Schaft also develops powerful electric actuators that mimic human strength, a technology that is absent in Boston Dynamics’ famous hydraulically-powered Atlas robot.
“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, founder and CEO 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.”
SoftBank may not be as well known in the field of robotics as Boston Dynamics, but the company does have its own budding robotics division. In 2014, the company established “SoftBank Robotics” and worked with French robotics company Aldebaran to launch Pepper, a social robot designed to assist people in airports, restaurants, and stores.
In 2015, SoftBank announced that it absorbed a majority of Aldebaran.
Now that SoftBank has entered a deal with Alphabet, it’s clear what the company’s intentions are. SoftBank is doubling down on consumer-oriented robotics, and it needs the tech and talent from Boston Dynamics and Schaft.
Pepper, for example, excels at customer interaction. The robot was employed at the Silicon Valley-based tech store b8ta last summer where it helped shoppers around the store. Pepper also took part in a Pizza Hut program, assisting hungry customers with orders.
While it’s a decent sociable robot, Pepper is not designed for practical heavy lifting. It doesn’t have legs so it’s limited to where it can go, and it’s arms and hands aren’t designed for manipulating everyday items. Sure Pepper can traverse retail store floors and play a game of ball-and-cup, but there’s greater potential if SoftBank is willing to compromise.
Boston Dynamics, as we’ve all seen with their impressive family of human-esque robots, is the expert in robot mobility. Quadrupeds like SpotMini can fetch a can of soda and even load a dishwasher. Handle balances on two wheels and can lift 100-pound loads.
Schaft doesn’t have an extensive robot lineup like Boston Dynamics, but its intellectual property could prove vital for SoftBank’s robots. Compact liquid-cooled electrical motors provide high speeds and high torques. Schaft’s electric motors are considerably smaller than hydraulics and don’t require bulky tubes and reservoirs.
Schaft’s now-deleted website read the following:
“One of the big problems of humanoid robots is the weakness of robots power. According to the unveiled information, the strongest robot with electric motor can generate one tenth power as much as actual human beings can generate. Our teams robot can generate ten times as much as the strongest robot, which means that our robots can generate the same power of an actual human being can generate. We have applied patents on these technology.”
Both Boston Dynamics and Schaft remained independent under Alphabet’s Replicant. What will be the case with SoftBank?
TechCrunch argues that it’s not a bad idea to let Boston Dynamics remain independent. No one wants to see a repeat of the Alphabet deal, and it’s hard monetizing a company that makes robots for war. I’m sure most consumers wouldn’t want a loud, gas-powered quadruped greeting them at b8ta.
It would be interesting to see the three companies morph their existing technologies into something much greater. For example, take the social capabilities of Pepper and combine it with the incredible agility of Handle, possibly shrinking the form factor using Schaft’s special motors. It could be a while, but it’s worth doing it right than doing it first.