Google can never be accused for being unambitious in setting strategies, given it success. Its search engine is the most used piece of technology in the world, its acquired video streaming site Youtube is the most popular, and the Android operating system is the most used platform for smartphones. These really went on to become household names due to the company’s slick manner of materializing concepts. Consequently, Google went on to become a multi-billion firm, yet it still continues to search for ideas that have potential to change the way we do things.
Google bought Boston Dynamics for $ 500 million back in 2013, in an attempt to take chances in robotics, for all the good reasons. The latter has worked for the Defense Advanced Projects Agency and other American government agencies for the development of products which may have value for military operations. Boston Dynamics also produces a wide variety of interesting robots such as BigDog, Petman and Atlas as well as a computer software called DI-Guy. Google acquired this firm in the hopes to pool a strong engineering team which will develop low cost robots for the masses. To make the entrepreneurial aspect of this vision possible, it created Alphabet in 2015 to invite possible funders and executives from companies in order to drive revenues up and create shareholder value for them. Aspirations were high back then, with some commenting it is Google’s smartest decision (to take a chance in the field of robotics).
Three years later, what was expected for this company to produce is not what Google has experienced. In a news article released by Bloomberg last March 17, 2016, it was revealed that Big G is now selling Boston Dynamics. What happened?
About Boston Dynamics
Before it became a subsidiary of Google, Boston Dynamics started as a spinoff from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, when Marc Raibert and his companions created robots that exhibit animal-like movements. They started in 1992 and collaborated with government agencies in their foray to create units which might have practical uses. Some of their partners include DARPA, the US Navy Marine Corps and Sony Corporation. The company prides itself as a team of engineers which creates robots with advanced functions, all made possible through funding from various agencies.
Boston Dynamics was also able to create the Wild Cat which is the fastest robot on land. This company is famous for the agility of their robots in which these have the ability to balance themselves and move similar with their living counterparts. Atlas, their latest humanoid robot, can get up even after it was toppled down, and BigDog can walk on roads as steep as 35 degrees. Contrary to the public’s outcry, the company nor the American government is not interested in weaponizing these robots. Their ultimate goal is to create units that are able to navigate unfamiliar terrains which will be useful in responding to disaster areas in the future.
Google, on the other hand, already longs to make its robotics vision into reality so it acquired this company along with other firms from Japan and California. Its plan was to enter in the automotive and automation industry, by releasing products as early as 2016. Rubin was able to convinced Google executives to fund robotics as an avenue in creating commercial products.
Google Means Business
Google becoming a global corporation is also the moment it has veered towards a familiar suit of setting strategies to expand and survive first, before materializing innovative ideas. Economically, a company will venture a market far enough if the benefits will exceed the cost of doing so. Google proved that it does not have to follow the trends in the market if it can create a new product and change the behavior of the consumer.
As innovative as Google is, it is not exempted from making a series of bad decisions in terms of conceptualizing questionable products. Its self-driving car completely missed the point of creating cars which are safe for driving, similar to what Tesla and BMW are doing right now. It also does not help the fact that its robotic division, where Boston Dynamics is included, is yet to produce something that can be commercialized within the next 10 years. Funding projects with uncertain results poses a real problem, even for companies such as Google. Even if Boston Dynamics has the most creative ideas, such as a bigger version of the BigDog, its outputs are mostly shelved by the military due to their respective unfixable flaws. Hardware issues proved to be more difficult to fix as these require physical manipulation, as opposed to digital patches.
Its in-house production, named the Replicant, also failed to materialize so the robot engineers focused on Google X’s projects first. Alphabet also experienced leadership changes and difficulty in integrating the staff of Boston Dynamics with its own robotics division. That also signaled the firm to sell that division as it sees no potential to develop a viable and profitable product in the following years. To be a viable cash cow was the primary reason for the buyout of this firm, but Boston Dynamics has yet to put out something that can be commercialized. What hurts more in the prospects of their robotic division is a string of internal strife, which was publicly known when documents pertaining to their e-mail exchanges and meeting notes were posted online. Subsequently, someone forwarded it to Bloomberg, then this news reached a global scale and led to surprise sale of Boston Dynamics.
Boston Dynamics as Seen by Google Executives
It is true that Boston Dynamics’ outputs were never aesthetically pretty. In fact, one can mistake their robots as something from a Terminator movie. While the company successfully created humanoid robots, more similar to us, the reception of the public is not as enthusiastic as them, according to a Google executive Courtney Hohne. The emails discussed the release of Atlas and its animosity from the commentators in the latest video that was posted by Boston Dynamics. She also advised her colleagues from Google X to dissociate themselves from them because she thinks the firm will have adverse effects on Google’s name.
The clip showed the capabilities of the revamped Atlas, as it follows a human and picks up objects. Interestingly, the man in the video is using a stick which can be implied that he is afraid to get too close to it. One serious concern about the development of Atlas is whether it can work with humans without hurting them in the process. The Google X executives were pretty mum in this regard, as if they are just letting Boston Dynamics do their stuff. However, the insiders revealed that they are not happy with the way this company does its things.
Andy Rubin was the key person in making the acquisition of Boston Dynamics come true and it brought about 300 engineers in Google. He left in 2014 which renders the ambition of creating low cost robots harder to reach. Unstable organizational structure as well as failure to collaborate with other companies rendered the Replicant project to fail. Another mystifying aspect is Boston Dynamics kept on releasing videos of their developments one after another, while Google was always silent in these matters.
In the core of this internal turmoil, a source mentioned that Boston Dynamics refused to work with other Google engineers from other parts of the world in the Replicant project. The company also failed in producing outputs that can be commercialized in the near term because of irreversible flaws such as sound levels. The whole world became aware of the disputes, when several e-mails of the November 11, 2015 meeting were published online. Google Executives pointed out that Google cannot spend 30% of their resources on projects which may or may not be available within the next years. They also pointed out that there must be a definite timeframe where they invested something and earn money in return.
On the other hand, Raibert and his colleagues believe that the only way on how to make a low cost four-legged robot work is through the way they do things in Boston Dynamics. Google X decided to reassign other Replicant employees now that reconciling ideas are impossible. They also shelved the project in December 2015 as they view robotics is not exactly the most practical way to solve what Google is facing right now. In the end, they cast doubts on the money making potential of Boston Dynamics, so it was put up for sale.
Future of Boston Dynamics
The bottom line is, robotics research is a long run, and Google should have known the fact that Boston Dynamics is not creating robots for commercial purposes. Some successful and functional units may have been created, but these aren’t cut for mass consumption, given their aesthetics and the aims of Boston Dynamics in robotics. They may have caught the attention of various governmental agencies, but these need robots mostly for military purposes. Big Dog was supposed to carry heavy equipment, Atlas was designed to pursue in operations where humans cannot and Petman is more of a quality checking robot. The software, DI-Guy, is more suitable for naval operations than video games. Moreover, bad publicity due to the internal conflicts will give Google some difficulty in selling Boston Dynamics.
There are two possible buyers of Boston Dynamics, which are Amazon and Toyota, according to the reports. However, the former has already built its own robotic division, when it acquired Kiva for $ 775 million, and it utilizes robots which are functional enough to do tasks in their warehouse which are far cry from Boston Dynamics’ nature. Yet robotics is not new to this firm as one out of four of its warehouse workers is a robot. Nevertheless, Atlas can lift objects and moves depending on the algorithm its programmer creates, so the possibility of selling Boston Dynamics to these guys is not necessarily zero.
Interestingly, Toyota has recently created the Toyota Research Institute, whose team also includes two former Google employees. Their vast knowledge about Boston Dynamics can be a catalyst for this deal to happen. Hedging against huge losses can also occur, since they already invested in a working company with proficiency in robotics. However, the company just spent $ 1 billion for Toyota Research Institute and it could prove risky for the firm to invest another billion dollars, given the high asking price. Ultimately, Toyota is not also fit with the militaristic nature of Boston Dynamics, because it is a car company and it has no real plans to venture in creating humanoid robots presently.
In the end, it seems like DARPA will be the only one to continue funding Boston Dynamics in the future, since it does not care about commercial success as long as its purpose is served. They also have the same goal of producing units that may be suitable for military operations. Google X might be there in the future, but it is still business at the end of the day, so they have to earn more than what they spend. It is understandable too as the company spent over $ 500 million in acquiring a firm. That amount of money certainly hurt Google’s liquidity and other financial aspects when it realized that Boston Dynamics cannot produce something tailored to their goals. On the other hand, Boston Dynamics only stayed true to its nature since its establishment in 1992, and is only doing what it knows best. Currently, neither Raibert nor Google were available for further comments to put some air in this issue. Whatever their reasons are, the Boston Dynamics and Google’s divorce was due to the irreconcilable difference of views which can be boiled down to one thing – commercialization versus creative freedom.
What’s your take in Google’s sale of Boston Dynamics?