Intelligent Machines

Why Google Is Selling Off Some of the Coolest Robots Ever Built

By putting Boston Dynamics up for sale, the search giant may be acknowledging how hard it is to turn impressive humanoid robots into a viable product.

You probably saw a video showing the latest humanoid creation from Boston Dynamics picking up boxes and staggering gamely through the woods. Impressive though those feats are, it seems they may no longer fit with Google’s new vision for its robotics research, as Bloomberg is reporting that the subsidiary is to be sold off.

After going on something of a robotics-company spending spree in 2014, Google’s robotics research project suffered from the departure of the original leader and the man behind Android, Andy Rubin, as well his replacement, James Kuffner. Rumors have been swirling for some time about other departures and a general lack of direction, so it wasn’t surprising to see the robotics project reorganized and brought into Google X as part of the company’s rebirth as Alphabet.

Perhaps it seems surprising that one of Google’s most spectacular robotics efforts should be cut loose. According to the Bloomberg story, negative press about robots taking jobs may have played some part in the decision to let the company go.

However, and surely more importantly, the technology Boston Dynamics is developing is much further from being marketable than most of the stuff Google is working on. The company is pioneering an approach to locomotion that involves legs, and balancing through movement rather than with a static design.

This could enable robots to cover all manner of terrain, or to step over obstacles, but it perhaps isn’t required for most places robots are deployed, such as factories or warehouses. What’s more, as the DARPA Robotics Challenge showed, performing dynamic balancing reliably in the real world is sometimes still very difficult.

Even so, it’s a bit of a shame. It seems that Google isn’t as ambitious about robots as it once appeared.

(Read more: The Latest Boston Dynamics Creation Escapes the Lab, Roams the Snowy Woods,” “10 Breakthrough Technologies 2014: Agile Robots,” “Why Robots and Humans Struggled with DARPA’s Challenge,Bloomberg Business, Wall Street Journal, Robotics Trends)

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