Skip to Content
Artificial intelligence

Google is closing a bipedal-robot project, but the robot revolution is far from over

November 15, 2018

Google’s parent company Alphabet has decided to close down an ambitious project to develop bipedal robots, created with the acquisition of a Japanese company called Schaft in 2013. 

Robots rising: It’s the latest sign that the robot revolution will take longer than the company originally expected—Alphabet sold off another of its most prominent robot acquisitions, Boston Dynamics, to Softbank last year. But it may also signal a plan to focus on more practical applications, such as manufacturing and picking using conventional robotic arms.

Fancy footwork: Schaft’s robot was extremely advanced. A spin-out from the lab of Hirochika Inoue at the University of Tokyo, it featured innovative actuators, cooling systems, and control software. In fact, the company’s original machine won the first DARPA Robotics Challenge, held in 2013, demonstrating remarkable agility and sure-footedness in several daredevil tasks (like, err, climbing up ladders). The video above shows it in action.

Upside downturn: After the closure of Rethink Robotics, a prominent company working on collaborative robots, it’s tempting to see a downturn in the robot market. But this isn’t the case at all, as worldwide sales of industrial robots show. Schaft’s bot was withdrawn from the second challenge, but the struggles all the competitors experienced throughout simply showed how far these advanced, bipedal robots are from being commercially viable. 

Spending spree: Google acquired several prominent and promising robotics companies back in 2013 as part of a project, known internally as Replicant, led by Andy Rubin, the executive behind the Android mobile operating system. Rubin left the company last year, in controversial circumstances, and his robotics project has floundered since then.

Robo-reality check: Alphabet was right to recognize that robotics would experience a renaissance, but the Replicant effort was too ambitious in the technology it was bringing together. Bipedal robots capable of working in unstructured environments could turn out to be incredibly important, but research in that area is probably better suited to academic labs.

Machine visions: Alphabet is still betting big on robotics. In fact, the company has several important projects in the works, including an effort to have industrial robots learn to perform complex tasks by working in parallel. This is just one of many commercial efforts to combine existing robot hardware with cutting-edge machine learning—something that is very difficult but could, in time, fundamentally change the robotics industry.

Deep Dive

Artificial intelligence

AI for everything: 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2024

Generative AI tools like ChatGPT reached mass adoption in record time, and reset the course of an entire industry.

What’s next for AI in 2024

Our writers look at the four hot trends to watch out for this year

OpenAI teases an amazing new generative video model called Sora

The firm is sharing Sora with a small group of safety testers but the rest of us will have to wait to learn more.

Google’s Gemini is now in everything. Here’s how you can try it out.

Gmail, Docs, and more will now come with Gemini baked in. But Europeans will have to wait before they can download the app.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.