Google is exiting the robot business -- at least until it becomes a little more lucrative. The tech giant’s parent company, Alphabet, is reportedly looking to sell Boston Dynamics, the firm's robotics subsidiary, because it’s not currently showing enough revenue potential.
At this point, potential buyers include Amazon and the Toyota Research Institute, a division of the automaker, according to a report from Bloomberg. For its part, Amazon already has a robotics branch, Amazon Robotics, that was formed after the company bought warehouse robot maker Kiva Systems for $775 million four years ago.
Google bought Boston Dynamics in 2013 to establish itself in the robotics field. Google’s initial goal was to put together a group of engineers to develop low-cost robots for the consumer market. That initiative, called Replicant, failed in the wake of leadership changes and a difficult process of integrating the staff of the two companies.
Alphabet’s current leadership doesn’t have sufficient faith that its robotics subsidiary will be able to bring a viable product to market any time in the next several years, according to reports.
The friction underlying the robotics division came to light when internal e-mail exchanges and meeting notes were posted on a Google corporate online forum. Someone within the company forwarded the documents to Bloomberg.
In one of the e-mails leaked to the media, an executive cautioned her colleagues about the possible negative reaction to a clip Boston Dynamics put online in February that depicted Atlas, a humanoid robot developed by the company. The video of Atlas (pictured above), which has 28 hydraulically actuated degrees of freedom along with such human anatomical components as arms, legs and a torso, frightened as many viewers as it excited.
"We're also starting to see some negative threads about it being terrifying, ready to take humans' jobs," said Courtney Hohne, Google's director of communications and spokesperson for Google X, in an internal company e-mail. Google X is Alphabet’s semi-secret research and development facility.
"We don't want to trigger a whole separate media cycle about where BD really is at Google," Hohne said. "We're not going to comment on this video because there's really not a lot we can add, and we don't want to answer most of the [questions] it triggers." Hohne also advised her colleagues to disassociate Google X from the Boston Dynamics video.
According to a November meeting, information about which was also made public, Jonathan Rosenberg, an adviser to Alphabet CEO Larry Page, expressed his reservations about the Replicant project. "We as a startup of our size cannot spend 30-plus percent of our resources on things that take ten years," Rosenberg said.
Since the Replicant program was put in mothballs late last year, the robotics engineers at Google have been working on Google X projects instead. Meanwhile, engineers from Boston Dynamics, who are still employed by Alphabet, are waiting to see how company leadership shapes up and what their roles will be, according to reports.
Image Credit: Images of Atlas (The Agile Anthropomorphic Robot) via Boston Dynamics.